Presentation Nerves Can Hit Anybody - Barry Johnson

If you are like most people, public speaking or presenting can be a major fear. Yet these skills are often called upon. Giving speeches at a wedding, at a funeral, to staff or even team members is a common enough occurrence that it’s highly likely you will come across such a situation at some point in your life.

Back when I worked as a licensed aircraft engineer, a colleague of mine was due to give an evening presentation to an aircraft society and students at a polytechnic. As it turned out, he was ill that day and my boss asked me to step in. I was an experienced instructor at the time, having taught pilots, engineering officers, and ground engineers in the systems and operations of VC10 aircraft for about two years. I had my colleague’s notes on what he wanted to cover in the lecture. The subject wasn’t technically complex, and I had taught it already a number of times. I agreed to do it.

I left work, drove to the presentation centre, and was all systems go until I walked into the hall. It was already half full – around three hundred people had arrived and more were streaming in. I had never suffered from nerves before as a trainer. My groups tended to be around twelve people at a time in size, and the sessions I taught were all about the students. Now, quite unexpectedly, it was about me – a presentation rather than an interaction.

I asked the organiser how many people in total were due to come. The answer was four hundred and twenty, some academics, some engineers, students, apprentices, financiers, a vast collection of people who had a general interest in aircraft, company people, and senior managers, some from my own company.

I was staggered. This took me well outside my comfort zone. Was I scared? Absolutely. I knew the subject matter, but the environment, listeners’ motivations, and the number of people were all different, and so my technique had to be different. I had about ten minutes to slow down my mind from its rate of high spin. My mouth was dry, my palms sweaty, and my mind empty of my opening lines. I remembered my own training from a few years before, in particular a session on staying calm under pressure, and the technique I used next is incredibly helpful if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

You’ll need to find a quiet place somewhere; your car, hotel room, or even a toilet stall can work well. It can also be useful to find somewhere quieter to walk. The aim of the exercise is to create a ‘productive level of relaxation’. Sit or stand with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Imagine roots growing from your feet, balancing and securing you. Listen to your breathing for a couple of minutes and pay attention to what happens to you when you consciously breathe more slowly and calmly. Experience the sensations with your body, not your mind. Feel your breath in your throat, your chest moving, your lungs filling with air. Notice how your tongue dries as air passes over it. Drink some water and breathe through your nose.

Now, focus your awareness on something you can see. Transform it into something else in your mind’s eye, still breathing slowly and deeply. Choose a neutral colour for whatever you have pictured. Focus, really focus, on what you can see in your mind’s eye and feel in your firm balance the movement of your lungs as you breathe in and out through your nose. If you are dizzy, ease the breathing slightly. Thoughts will flood in, so notice them and then let them go, remaining focused on your original image. Do nothing else; just be. You are you; you are balanced, your breathing has become slower and deeper.

Five minutes or so will have passed while doing this, and once you are done you can open your eyes and stand slowly. If you are dizzy, control it – you are in control of yourself. Maintain this level of calmness and relaxed breathing throughout your presentation and it will unconsciously influence your voice and body language; you will look and sound more confident.

This simple, brief exercise allows you to calm yourself and focus your attention – two critical attributes of a good speech or presentation. Practise it until you can do it easily at a moment’s notice, because that’s when you’ll need it most!

If you are able, try to plan a good workout earlier in the day of your presentation. Even a brisk walk can really help! Anxiety agitates your system by releasing adrenaline in response to a perceived threat – it is what provides the energy for a fight or flight response. Exercise can alleviate anxiety by releasing endorphins that boost your mood and increasing your body temperature that creates a calming effect. It provides an outlet for that excess energy and distracts you from your worries. If a workout is not an option, the simple act of smiling at someone or greeting someone can calm you down.

Sometimes we don’t realise we’re nervous until just before it’s our turn to speak. You may feel calm and prepared until just before your name is called. If you’re out of view, you can try the methods I mentioned above. If you are in plain sight, try visualisation or discreet, deep breathing, keeping a smile on your face to stay relaxed.

Presenting is not a natural activity; even the most practised presenters get a bit nervous. The point is this: use your nervous energy to your advantage. Adrenaline is being pumped through your body - use that energy to communicate enthusiastically, convincingly and passionately. Use your nervousness as a driver. You can do it.