Your boss has decided that you are the one to present an overview of the project. Your stomach is already churning, your head is spinning, it’s keeping you awake at night and the day is looming; presentation nerves have struck.  Having gone through the obvious options and decided that you can’t afford to resign and that lightning strikes are not that obliging what do you do now?

Presentation nerves have hit me so many times; each time I raced through the presentation, felt relieved when it was finished and tried not to think about it again. Until the next time, of course, when it was all the same again. Eventually, I took steps to overcome my fear and gain a few skills; on the way I hit some revelations that I wished I’d known sooner.

How confidence affects performance

One of the most common barriers to delivering a good presentation is our own lack of confidence.  There’s wisdom in the cliche “fake it till you make it”, but as well as just feigning confidence there are also a few things you can do to boost your own confidence. When you feel more confident you convey that confidence to your audience; the more confident you appear the more they will have confidence in you.

You don’t have to fix everything right now

If at this point you’re thinking “well I don’t feel confident so this isn’t helping”, remember that you only need to feel confident for the duration of your presentation. I’m sure you want more, but for now, you don’t need that sort of pressure. Actually the more often you deliver a presentation with confidence, the more confident you will feel about future presentations and the less you will see of those presentation nerves. But if your presentation is tomorrow just trust that it will happen eventually. The tips in this article are a mix of ideas that I have found helpful in building my own confidence. I hope some work for you and it would be great to hear more if you have them.

How do I feel confident if I’m not?

We fool ourselves all the time. We have fun with friends and convince ourselves that the journey home will be traffic free – it isn’t. We sit out in the sun a bit longer and tell ourselves that there’s less work to get back to than we thought – there isn’t. These triggers may not be the most helpful, but we can find triggers that will work in our favour and help us banish those presentation nerves. Some triggers can even make us look more confident when we use them.

Make the space yours.

Returning to a space you know is much more comfortable than being somewhere for the first time. When you return to speak your brain will be saying ‘here we are again’ not ‘where are we and what’s going on?’

Try to get a chance to stand where you will be presenting from, look out and imagine your audience, get familiar with your surroundings. With your best inner voice tell yourself  “This is my space”. If you’re presenting in your own office environment try to slip into the meeting room early or sometime before the event. If it’s at an outside event you may still be able to do this while things are being set up. Work on telling yourself that you have the right to be there.

Take control

Often, after a long day, we sit in our favourite chair, move it to where we want it, maybe pull up a footstool, put the remote or a book in our reach. Making a small gesture in your speaking space can settle you in the same way.

Before you start speaking take a second to mentally and physically put yourself in control; perhaps take a sip of water, check your notes, adjust the angle of the laptop. If something is in your way and doesn’t need to be there move it. You don’t need to overdo it, a few seconds should do the job but try and get things how you want them. This signals to your brain and your audience that you are now in control, and control equates to confidence. Those presentation nerves should soon get the message.

Let yourself pause.

When you pause the time seems much longer to you than your audience and those presentation nerves can start to kick back in. You may be thinking about what you meant to say next, but your audience is more likely to hear a dramatic pause. They’ll be hanging on for the next words.

One common piece of advice that comes in top ten lists for speakers is to slow down. It’s great advice. We often speak too fast when we are nervous, our audience also needs time to take in what we are saying. When I’m nervous I often find an internal argument going on; “you’re going too slow, this needs to be over, if I stop they’ll think I’ve forgotten it all – or finished, they’re getting bored”. Consciously add to this dialogue that “it’s good to pause”. Take a breath and pause, it will help the panic to subside

Sorry, but no apologies.

Don’t apologise. Don’t apologise for pausing, don’t apologise for returning to an earlier point and never apologise for being a bad speaker. First, it’s not actually kind to your audience; if they think your speaking is fine then you’ll be questioning their judgement, if they don’t then lengthening your presentation with apologies won’t help.  Adjusting your speech as you go also has some element of speaking off the cuff; it may not be what you intended but it’s still a skill admired by many. Apologies don’t just make you appear out of control, they can make you feel out of control too, and that drops your confidence again letting those presentation nerves back in. Of course, the exception to this is when the intent of your speech is an apology; particularly if your solicitor has helped you draft an apology then follow their instruction and be polite to the judge.

Tell yourself you look good.

Before you present do give a moment or two to your appearance. I’m not one for fussing greatly about clothes, hair, or makeup, and please don’t ask me for fashion advice. I’m absolutely not advising what you should wear but I do have some clothes confidence guidelines to avoid those presentations nerves.

  1. Consider that photos get taken all the time in lots of situations; if they do will you look back and wish you had worn something that fits you better or wish that you’d combed your hair?  Wear something you feel reasonably OK in and check that you look tidy.
  2. If you have a vision of how a successful, confident person dresses aim for that look. It will help you fool your brain into expecting success in your presentation. We often meet our own expectations so that counts for a lot.
  3. Wondering if you should dress up but know that your audience is going to be casual? Don’t be afraid to dress slightly smarter than your audience. If you are talking ‘technician to technician’ or ‘artist to artist’ you probably don’t need to go overboard to come across as a hands-on person.  Make the decision based on how you feel.

Think about these things beforehand and then remind yourself that you have done the best you can; the point is not to be ‘correct’ but to avoid distracting ourselves during the presentation. The reality is that we are our own harshest critics when it comes to looks. So if you are going to worry do it before you speak and carry a comb.

Be comfortable with your material

Practise as much as you can. If you have slides practise with them. The point of practice is so that you are familiar with what you are presenting, not that you are word perfect. If you miss something out or use a different phrase to the one you intended your audience won’t know; if you know your material well enough you will get your point across. You won’t always get as much chance to practise as you want. At work, you may get very little time at all, but try to use what time you can. It’s great to surprise your audience. But it’s not so great for our inner confidence when we are surprised by our own words.

Use notes with confidence.

A lot of people worry that using notes makes them a lesser presenter but they can be used well. Actually, there can be great reasons to use them. You won’t always get time to learn your presentation and there may be important points you can’t afford to miss. A presentation with notes used smoothly is much better than a badly done presentation without. Practise your presentation using bullet point notes, they will help you keep on track. With practice, your notes will be a comforting reminder rather than a revelation. And if presentation nerves do strike they’ll be there to get you back on track.

A final thought: Be your own friend

We are all our own worst critic, if you only have one friend in the room let it be you.

There are loads of top 10 lists, top 3 lists, things to avoid lists, things to remember and things to make you a presenting superhero lists available. Few are new, they generally agree but some will resonate better with you or your situation. These ideas all work to help you improve your skills, but most take time to practise. What I’ve included here are some ideas that you can use while you develop those other skills. Remember, the thing that stops us performing at our current best is lack of confidence. Fear of speaking can distract us, restrict our vocal cords and make a few minutes seem like infinity; so be kind to yourself – you’re going to be fantastic.

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