Presentations: Managing Nerves
Sometimes a talk feels more like a test of nerves than an opportunity to share your work. If you're feeling that way, there are lots of things you can do to calm yourself before, during, and even after a talk.
Prepare and Practice. Knowing you are prepared can make giving a talk much more enjoyable.
- Slides that offer good visual support. Your slides are your support staff, and if you know they are doing their share of the work, it's easier to feel more confident.
- Modular answers to commonly asked questions. That way, you known you can offer answers that sound polished.
- The entire talk: a few times.
- The first few minutes and key transitions: many more times.
- Answering difficult questions without being defensive: all the time.
Set reasonable terms for yourself. It is up to you to set the terms under which you deliver the talk. Some people set hard terms for themselves, such as “I need to impress” or “I can’t make mistakes.” Others set more reasonable terms such as, “I’m sharing my work with others and hoping for an interesting discussion.” Ask yourself what terms you have set for yourself and whether they are reasonable.
When you’re standing in front of a room filling up with people, it’s easy to feel unnerved. If you do feel that way, pause and…
- Breathe. Take a slow, deep breath, hold for 3 counts, exhale. Do this a few times and you will feel your body relaxing.
- Remind yourself of the terms of the talk. If you are worrying about others judging your performance, remind yourself of the terms on which you are giving the talk: I’m sharing my work with others and hoping for an interesting discussion.
- Notice the individuals in the audience. If watching a crowd gather makes you anxious, try looking at individuals entering the room. You will probably see a few friendly faces. You will also see people who look preoccupied, tired, or even bored—fair enough, you have probably felt that way on some days. For all these people, it’s an ordinary day, and their expectations of you are also ordinary.
Use friendly self-talk. During a talk, your internal monologue can be helpful or harmful depending on what you are saying to yourself. To keep your internal monologue positive and friendly, speak to yourself as you would to a friend. As you would not scold or criticize a friend working through a challenging task, do not scold or criticize yourself. As you would not freak out a friend by posing worst-case scenarios, don’t do this to yourself.
Move on from mistakes. If something doesn’t go as planned during a talk, take a moment to acknowledge it and move on. This is not only for your sake, but also for the audience’s sake. Uncomfortable moments and awkward situations arise routinely in life, but things move on if you let them. If you feel you need to think through the error and analyze it, remind yourself that the talk is not the right time and place; you will make time afterwards.
Zoom out. If you’re getting caught up in the details and losing perspective of the big picture, remind yourself of it: other people want to hear about your work and offer you their thoughts. Such moments are not guaranteed in life, and it’s worth celebrating the fact that you’re getting one!
Conduct a balanced debrief. It’s important to have a quick debrief after delivering a talk. However, many people who are anxious about giving talks, use the debrief to make a list of things that didn’t go perfectly or things that they could do better the next time. While knowing what you can do better is important, a debriefing exercise is most useful when it is balanced. Be fair to yourself and note both your strengths and your weaknesses.
Finally, remember that people will come to your talk to learn about your work. They will walk out knowing more than they did when they walked in, and that means you've done a great job!
Image By D Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons