Speaker's Anxiety

As a student, you may have experienced the signs of "Speaker's Anxiety"--Sweaty palms, dry mouth, shortage of breath, accelerated heartbeat, anxiety, and fear. These signs may begin right before your presentation, hours or days before it, or even at the moment you find out about it; and they can persist during your presentation or talk. Sometimes they make it impossible for you to do a good job. Most of the students who suffer from speaker's anxiety feel and/or think that it is almost impossible to get rid of. However, there is hope. Most of the experienced speakers know today what they did not know then, which is how to fight and overcome this type of anxiety. These speakers have learned how to transform fear into confidence and self-control; and, you can learn, too. In this article we will review the steps they have gone through in order to make a good presentation. These steps are:

Before Your Presentation/Talk
Taking Care of Yourself
Beginning Your Presentation
During Your Presentation
After You are Done with Your Presentation

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The following description of these steps contain some of the techniques you can use to develop self-confidence and a powerful speaker ability.




Before Your Presentation/Talk

  • Think about your classmates/audience.
    Are you going to present in front of a small or a large group? Do you know their backgrounds or interests? Learning about them would help you to become more relaxed. Tailor your presentation to that particular group.
  • Research your subject/topic.
    Even if you know your subject/topic, get more information about it. Doing this would help you to feel more confident, and would enable you to answer more questions.
  • Write down your presentation.
    You can have this material in front of you if you decide to read your presentation to your audience. Even if you decide not to read it, it will be there in case you get lost and need to get "back on track."
  • A step ahead.
    If you want to deliver a better presentation, develop an outline of the headline and main ideas from your written presentation. Then, avoid reading and use the outline for your presentation. Trust me, your audience will not only be grateful, but more interested in what you have to say. In addition, you may have noticed that most good speakers do not read their presentations, even though they started that way.
  • Number and staple together all pages of your presentation.
    Remember, most podiums are not horizontal, the air conditioner unit might blow stronger in that area, and you may become a little more clumsy when presenting. Numbering and stapling your presentation, or its outline, will help you put it back together again in case something happens.
  • Use LARGE, bold type.
    One of my friends always types his presentations in large, bold print with wide spaces between the lines so he can see them easily. This also helps him to rapidly spot where he is after making a pause, or even when he gets lost. I think he is a pretty smart person.
  • Use your capacity of "As if."
    Picture yourself "as if" you are in front of your classmates/audience and rehearse your presentation out loud. Rehearsing will allow you to evaluate and improve your presentation, as well as practice your gestures and other non-verbal elements. Do not forget to time yourself.
  • Tape yourself.
    Tape your rehearsal and check the content, pace, and length (time) of your presentation. By listening to yourself you can find out what is OK and what needs to be changed. Organize the rest of your work accordingly.
  • Rehearse in front of others.
    Ask a friend or classmate you trust to critique your presentation. This person can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your presentation and provide some helpful advice. (Do not forget to be open and not to take any criticisms in a personal way--you want to do better, not to lose a friend.) If you cannot do this, practice in front of a mirror. Several of my students have confided to me that it really helps.
  • Have some "comebacks" ready.
    Even experienced speakers can lose their place in the middle of a presentation. The reason they do not freeze is that they have some "comebacks" ready to fill the gap and allow them time enough to return to what they were saying. These "comebacks" can be anecdotes, short comments, or even jokes that you can throw into your presentation when you need it.
  • Highlight interesting details.
    In the same way you highlight key elements when reading, verbally point out key elements during your presentation. Interesting and entertaining elements add spice to your talk, and make it more powerful.
  • Coach yourself.
    Talk to yourself. Tell yourself what you are doing right and motivate yourself to practice what still seems to need some improvement. Avoid telling yourself what you do not want to happen. Emphasize what you want to do, not what you want to avoid. Use statements such as "I will do my best," instead of "I will not be nervous."
  • Think "catastrophically."
    What do you think is the worst that can happen? Having to request a delay because you have to run to the bathroom? Noticing some tremor in your voice? Skipping a section of your presentation? Not being able to talk because of your dry mouth? And what do you think your audience would do? Would some of them leave the room? Would they laugh at you? Think about it. You may be investing too much energy worrying that some of these things may happen. Chances are they would not. And even if they do happen you now you can do something about each of them. You can go to the bathroom, you can take a deep breath and relax, you can realize that everybody may miss a part of their talk, and all these will change for the better with practice. And regarding your audience, remember, there is always the possibility of somebody leaving the room or laughing during a presentation, even if the presenter is doing a good job.

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Taking Care of Yourself

  • Talk to yourself.
    Continue your coaching. Tell yourself that you can make it, and that you have something important to say to your classmates/audience. Think about this presentation as another step in your road to self-confidence and self-control.
  • Get enough rest before your presentation.
    If your presentation is in the morning, get enough sleep the night before. If it is during the day, take enough time to rest before presenting. The more relaxed you are, the higher the chances to do a good job. The more tired or exhausted you are, the higher the chances to get nervous and make mistakes.
  • Do not abuse food or beverages.
    People that I know postpone drinking and eating until after their presentation. This helps them to prevent any stomach discomfort, and at the same time, use food and beverages to reward themselves for a job done. Notice that they do not say "for a job well done." The important point is rewarding yourself according with your level of progress. If you are just starting, you deserve a reward for just giving a presentation! It does not matter how good or bad it was. The important point is that you were brave enough to do it.
  • Do not use alcohol or any other drugs.
    Avoid alcohol, as well as other drugs always, and especially before your presentation. These substances could not only produce damage over time, but they can also impair your capacity to do your presentation now.
  • Dress for success.
    Your appearance will affect the way people feel about you. Find out about the dress code in the situation you will be presenting and dress accordingly. Find a balance between a distinctive outfit for that particular setting, and one that will help you feel relaxed.
  • Use physical relaxation.
    If you know how to relax, practice it. If you do not know how to do it, learn to relax before your next presentations. One of the best ways I know to relax uses tensing and relaxing each of the major muscle groups in your body. Tense them very tightly. Then gently relax your muscle. This simple exercise can calm your body and relax strained muscles. If you want to know more about relaxation, use the Relaxation, or the Breathing Techniques screens in this program. Biofeedback is also a useful way to learn to relax.
  • Use handouts.
    Figures, tables, or other summative information are always useful. They make you look good, grab people's attention, and can help you to collect your thoughts or calm down if you must pause.
  • Find a safe position.
    If your hands shake when holding your outline, find support in the podium. If you feel more comfortable behind a table, take that place. In a sense, position yourself in any reasonable way that helps you feel more secure.
  • Bring your own "stress-saver."
    Use a pointer, or a pen, or anything that you can hold and/or grasp during your presentation. This object can serve as a personal "support" as well as an outlet for your stress.
  • Check the equipment.
    Check your overhead or slide projector ahead of time. Try the equipment two or three times. Make sure you know how to use them. If this sounds like too much, I can tell you I have seen upside-down slides way too many times. Check to make sure you have enough chalk. Make sure that the audience will be able to see what you are seeing.


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Beginning Your Presentation

  • Gain supporters even before your presentation.
    Talk to one or more of your classmates or friends in the room. Tackle the monster head-on. The more people you meet before your presentation, the easier it will be for you to see them as a friendly group.
  • Present yourself.
    Give your name and the title of your presentation before moving on. Making some introductory remarks about yourself and about the topic you will be presenting usually produces a more relaxed feeling in your audience. Even making some positive remarks about your classmates/audience can help in the same way.
  • Use a powerful opener.
    Start with a relevant story, relevant statistics, or an important question. These will set the stage for your presentation, getting people's attention and interest.
  • The question of self-awareness.
    Keep in mind that you are more aware of yourself than anybody else in the room. More often than not listeners miss your nervousness. The tremors that seem so obvious to you are rarely noticed by your audience. The less attention you pay to your own signs, the more easily they go away.

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During Your Presentation

  • Speak clearly.
    Do not eat your words. Enunciate clearly. During your practices, check for the correct pronunciation of specific words. If you cannot pronounce them correctly, choose a synonym.
  • Use rhythm and drama.
    Go slowly. Pause when appropriate. Change your voice volume to emphasize important points. Spice up your talk with some dramatic silences.
  • Breathe in and out.
    Sounds like silly advice! Well, one of the most common difficulties speakers experience is maintaining a normal breathing pattern. Usually, they lose their air as they talk, finishing their last phrases gasping for air. A way to prevent this is learning some of the breathing methods described in the Breathing Techniques screen.
  • Release the tension of your shoulders.
    I have named this tension the "hanger syndrome" because it feels as if you are wearing your shirt or jacket with the hanger still on. Relax your shoulders before and during your presentation. The closer your shoulders are to your ears, the more tension you feel in your neck and the back of your head, and the more anxious you feel. The exercise to release this tension involves exaggerating it. Take your shoulder even closer to your ears, hold that tension for a moment, then relax. Repeat two or three times. This way, you can learn how it feels when your shoulders are relaxed, and work to keep them that way in the future.
  • Be brave, look at people.
    I have had several discussions with people who lecture. Some of them advise staring at people during your presentation and some prefer to make no visual contact. My choice is to make eye contact with the persons in the room. I think looking at people helps you to overcome your anxiety over time and keeps them attentive!
  • Let the tremor in your voice come in and go out.
    Everybody's voice will show some tremors from time to time. Tremors are unavoidable. Whenever they happen, change to a slower pace, breathe more deeply, and let the tremor go away by itself.
  • Move around.
    You cannot be standing up and sitting down at the same time. By the same token, you cannot be moving and freezing at the same time. Moving around will calm you down!
  • Make your point.
    Deliver the best information you can, and make your point(s). Let people know the results of your research by stating your main point(s) clearly. They are there to learn, so let your audience learn something from you.
  • Intersperse colorful details.
    Introduce interesting details now and then, throughout your entire presentation. Colorful details will engage people's attention.
  • Lighten up.
    Remember the song ". . . keep loose when things get tight . . . " No matter what kind of problem you run into, or what kind of mistake you can make, as long as you are in control of yourself you will be able to do something about it.
  • Use a powerful end.
    Finish with a relevant summary, a clever closing remark, or an important question. These will round out your presentation.
  • Have fun!
    I know this "ain't gonna" happen at first, but, if you use some or all the techniques described here, you get to the point of having fun doing your presentation. The audience is there to learn, and you have something they can learn from. If you do a good job your audience will appreciate it, and you will enjoy the experience.

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Are You Done With Your Presentation

  • Leave room for questions.
    Save some time for questions. As long as you do not take them in a negative way, questions can help you to restate, correct, or clarify some point(s). What about not having questions? You can come up with one of your own (one that you can brilliantly answer!) or you can use that time to thank your classmates/audience.
  • Reward yourself.
    Whether you did well or not, reward yourself for doing, and surviving your presentation! You deserve it.
  • Later on.
    Evaluate your performance. Find out what you did right and save it for the next time. Then, focus on what did not work. Do not dwell on the mistakes you might have made. You are supposed to make some mistakes. Use them as a guide for what needs to be improved. Work on improving them over time.
  • REMEMBER.
    Remember the old saying, "Practice makes perfect." But do not forget that, as my friend Jeff Zeig use to tell me, "Even a perfect presentation should have a perfect mistake."

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