06 Dec Help! I have to give a presentation!
By Joanne Mamo
Practical strategies for reducing presentation performance anxiety
The extreme nervousness some of us experience before, or during a presentation or public speaking event, collectively referred to as performance anxiety, often gets in the way of our ability to present our message effectively. For many of us, the word “presentation” alone can bring up a cascading stream of concerns, such as “what if I freeze?”, “what if I make a mistake?” and “what if they judge me?” As our nervous system cannot distinguish between physically life-threatening and psychologically intimidating circumstances, we may experience uncomfortable physiological symptoms as our bodies prepare for action (or “fight or flight”), such as a racing heart rate, nausea, sweating, dry mouth, dizziness, restlessness and muscle pain. Irrespective of the discomfort we may experience, we still need to deliver our presentation or get our message across to our audience. This article presents four practical strategies to help you contain, manage and reduce the impact of performance anxiety.
Strategy 1 – Use empowering self-talk
Be aware of what you tell yourself before a presentation. What is the script that you run in your head? Is it positive and encouraging or anxiety provoking? By altering your self-talk to include optimistic, empowering statements rather than pessimistic, disheartening statements, you will directly impact how you feel about your presentation. By naming and normalising the excitement you feel before a presentation, you may calm yourself down. For example, before a presentation, instead of thinking “I am feeling very nervous”, we can instead use a more empowering statement, such as “I am feeling excited and it is normal to feel excited before giving a presentation”. In doing this, we can separate ourselves from negative emotions; stopping them from getting out of control.
Strategy 2 – Visualise or imagine success scenarios
Before a competition, many athletes visualise themselves charging through the finish line or scoring the winning goal. In the same way, you can visualise yourself calmly presenting with confidence and succeeding with achieving your presentation’s aims. It is important that visualisations are realistic and rational, for example, visualising yourself presenting well, encountering an obstacle, overcoming it and confidently answering questions from your audience, rather than simply imagining best case outcomes.
Strategy 3 – Use a high-power pose
Imagine how you typically stand or sit in the moments leading up to a presentation. You might be picturing yourself with your arms crossed, pacing nervously or rubbing your temples in an attempt to reduce the pounding inside your head. Social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, encourages the use of power-posing before presentations. Her research shows that high power poses have a physiologically measurable and positive impact on presentation confidence by boosting levels of testosterone. This hormone is responsible for making us feel assertive and confident. You can power pose by expanding your posture, for example raising your arms in a victory pose or channelling wonder woman by placing your hands on your hips. The research shows that as little as two minutes of power-posing can raise your testosterone levels enough to give you a temporary “high” for your presentation.
Strategy 4 – Be present oriented
If you catch yourself spiralling into a whirlpool of negative thoughts and worries, redirect your attention to the present moment. Since most of your worries are likely focused on the anticipation of a presentation whose events cannot be completely controlled, it can help to instead focus on what can be controlled in the here and now. This can translate into preparing and practicing your presentation beforehand or organising your presentation space on the day. You can also focus on the here and now by simply paying attention to the experiences of your five senses, such as observing your breath or listening to the sounds around you. Many presenters focus on making eye contact, smiling or chatting with members of the audience before they start as this distracts them from that anxious anticipation prior to starting.
Performance anxiety is an uncomfortable, yet normal response to an upcoming presentation. To manage performance anxiety symptoms, equip yourself with anxiety management strategies, including the ones mentioned above. Further professional support may be gained by increasing your assertiveness, growing your self-confidence and formal training in presentation skills. Presentations do not need to be a source of psychological torture. With the right approach, they can be enjoyable opportunities to communicate your important message persuasively and effectively with the desired impact on your audience.