Are you terrified every time you have to present in front of people? Maybe you’re confident but take a while to find your feet? Or just looking for a few rehearsal tips? Well, look no further!

We’ve all felt it – that heavy feeling in your stomach waiting for your name to be announced, the pacing up and down in the corridor before the door opens, the slightly sweaty palms as you open up your laptop. Everyone gets presentation nerves. And the truth is that a little extra adrenaline pumping through your veins probably gives your performance a lift. But chronic, debilitating nerves are really unpleasant, and are a real issue for many people. So, how can you arm yourself against them? What steps can you take to beat the butterflies?

The problem with nerves is that – aside from being unpleasant for the presenter – they tend to adversely affect the audience. There are two facets to the problem. Firstly, the physical symptoms are distracting. Beads of sweat on the forehead, restlessness, fidgeting are all fairly obvious to an audience and pull them out of the moment, drawing their attention away from your content. Breathiness – which comes from a presenter taking short, shallow breaths in quick succession – disrupts the flow of information and makes it difficult for people to follow a narrative.

Secondly, your nerves undermine your confidence, and – in turn – your audience’s confidence in you. Rather unfortunately, many of the symptoms associated with nervousness are also associated with guilt, untrustworthiness and deceit. So, while you may have every confidence in the validity of your claims, it might not come across that way.

When it comes to tackling nerves, there is no single infallible method. But one or two of the things mentioned below might help you get them under control. Even if you never get nervous, they can still help improve your delivery.

Know your material

Preparedness is your number one ally. Often nerves are the result of feeling unprepared or – to put it another way – uncertainty about what lies ahead. You can’t control everything, nor can you anticipate everything that is going to happen once you begin, but you can take steps to ensure that your role, and your part in the equation, is locked down and certain.

The key is to practise and to really know your content inside out. It seems a simple point to make and it is, but often people confuse ‘knowing their content’ with ‘being able to get through their content’. Here, we’re aiming for the former. You may know your slides, and can present them well start-to-finish, but can you do the same if they’re out of order? Can you pick up where you left off after a 10 minute interruption? Can you keep your narrative going if the slide doesn’t progress? Can you paraphrase the final 10 slides if you run out of time? If your laptop fails, can you deliver the content without any slides at all?

Yes, it’s challenging and yes, it takes time. But you need this level of ‘whatever-the-world-throws-at-me’ familiarity if you are going to push past your presentation nerves. Often people stop rehearsing when they can get through the deck. In truth, your rehearsals only begin once you can get through the deck.

Pre-empt the worst (and best)

Another step in our quest to reduce the amount of uncertainty in a presentation is to try and pre-empt all of the things that could go wrong. Power failures, laptop glitches, unreliable projectors are all quite common, and you should arrive with a fall-back option should the worst happen. But even beyond that, you need to prepare to deal with the most uncertain element of your presentation: your audience.

For example, what are the most difficult and awkward questions your audience could ask you? You should know them, and it is worth planning responses that answer them in a positive way. What are the most likely objections that could be raised? Come up with ways to overcome them, address them or dismiss them. You should pay particular attention to the audience members themselves – who are they? What are their interests? What are their challenges? What will they be expecting from you? What will they want to hear? What won’t they want to hear? Thinking in these terms helps you plan and prepare effectively, and helps remove the dreaded element of uncertainty.

And just in case you thought this was beginning to sound a little pessimistic, your preparedness needs to extend to best-case scenarios as well as worst-. Are you prepared for them to sign then and there? Even if it’s a preliminary meeting, do you have prices to hand in case they are swayed by your early slides and don’t need to see any more? What if they are so engrossed, they want you to carry on past your 10 minute allotted time? Or to put you in front of the CFO then and there? Remember, as well as going wrong, things might go better than you expect!

Delivery technique

It might be that you truly are as prepared as prepared can be, but it is your delivery itself that needs work. Well, the natural choice is to get BrightCarbon in to provide some in-house coaching to really help you raise your game. However, there are other things you can do to improve your technique and your confidence, which will help sort your nerves.

Everyone presents really well in their head. Out loud, in front of a crowd is a different matter. When you’re rehearsing your slides, try to make the environment as similar to the event as possible. If you can get into the actual space with the actual equipment – great. If not, hook your laptop up to a screen or projector – whatever you’ll be using on the day – rather than just using your laptop screen. You’ll get a better feel for the space, and become more comfortable with the physical side of your delivery.

If you can rehearse in front of people, this is even better. Get them to interrupt, ask questions and act as close to how your real audience will act. Presenting in front of strangers is tough, but doing so in front of colleagues is even harder. If you can become comfortable delivering your material in a room of your peers, chances are you’ll be fine on the day.

If you’re really struggling to find an appropriate space or a willing group of volunteers, fear not. You can still rehearse effectively by yourself. Put your laptop in show mode and click through your slides, speaking your narration out loud. You might feel a little foolish, but it’s the best way. As I said, everyone presents well in their head – but doing so out loud is tougher. There’s no point giving yourself an easy ride then struggling later on. Get it right now and you’ll be far more comfortable on the day.

Record yourself

One technique that is quite often recommended is to rehearse your material in front of a mirror. This seems a little strange to me. While you’ll get a good idea of how you will look while you present, it’s important to remember the audience will (and should) be looking at the slides as well as at you. Rehearsing without them (and without an appreciation of how you’ll interact with them) seems a little pointless.

A better technique is to rehearse your performance in context – that is, clicking through and interacting with the slides. Why not set up a video camera or your smartphone and record your delivery? Watch it back (no doubt cringing – as I do when I watch myself) and try to spot the things you didn’t think worked; be your own critic. If you’re honest (but not too harsh) with yourself, it will work a treat and you’ll get more confident, and less nervous with each delivery.

Take a breath

My final piece of advice is to take a breath, physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s very easy to work yourself up into a state before you present. You automatically think of all the things that could go wrong, and how the audience is going to judge you. It’s easy to get drawn into a partisan state of mind whereby it’s you vs. them – and there can only be one victor.

Try to drop all that baggage. There is no ‘you and them’, no one is waiting for you to mess up, and no one will judge you if you do. Take ‘business’ out of the equation and remember the crowd in front of you are people too. They’re here to learn from what you have to say, and you both want the presentation to go smoothly. Doing so requires you to keep your emotions in check and your mind calm, so you can clearly and concisely communicate your ideas to them.

It’s as simple as that.

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Written by

Kieran Chadha

Managing consultant

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Apr 2019

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