All that time spent polishing, honing, and rehearsing your presentation… Gone in a split second. You’re on stage, paralysed by fear. You can’t open your mouth. Your heart is beating like a drum, and the fight-or-flight reaction is in full swing.
What’s the best way to beat this terrifying paralysis? The more we can make presenting feel habitual, the less nerve-wracking it will be. This routine made up of 15 simple habits will help you count down to every presentation with less anxiety and better preparedness.
15 minutes before your presentation: Walk to the venue.
Many studies have demonstrated that light exercise activates the brain. For instance, scientists at the Salk Institute have shown that walking can improve verbal and spatial memory.
A study at Princeton University, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, demonstrates that light exercise reduces anxiety. But how do you fit this useful activity into your busy schedule? The simplest exercise that you can always do without any equipment is walking. So the next time you have a presentation, why don’t you park a bit further away and make sure that you have a short walk before you reach the venue?
14 minutes before your presentation: Have a mint and drink some water.
No matter how beautiful your presentation looks or how polished your speech is, perpetually clearing your throat—or even worse, not being able to make any sounds at all—will distract your audience.
Add some mints to your packing list and make sure to have them in a bag close to you. Ask for a bottle of water at the venue or carry your own. These steps will ensure that your voice doesn’t suddenly fail you when showtime rolls around.
13 minutes before your presentation: Hit the restroom and check a mirror.
Get into the habit of going to the restroom before a big presentation. There’s another reason to do so besides the obvious. A visit to the restroom gives you a chance to check your appearance in the mirror. Fear can make us vulnerable to serious, even irrational doubt. Checking our general appearance in a mirror can help reassure us that we look just fine.
12 minutes before your presentation: Set up the technology early.
There is nothing worse than having a rush of public speaking anxiety while you are in a full computer meltdown.
Don’t rely solely on the technical team at the venue. Make sure that you know how to connect your laptop to a projector, how to switch between the different video and input modes, and how to put your presentation in fullscreen mode.
Consider bringing a few extra gadgets. A remote allows you to stand further away from the podium. A USB stick with a backup of your presentation can be useful in case your tech does not work.
11 minutes before the presentation: Check your desktop background.
If you already know that you are going to present using your laptop, you have no excuse for embarrassing yourself with your desktop background.
Does it tell a story you want to share with your audience? If it does, way to go—you’ve found a nice way to break the ice. If—as more often happens—your desktop image does not add much to your presentation, or even distracts your audience, go with something from the presets of your computer and save yourself any embarrassment.
10 minutes before your presentation: Practice the first minute of your presentation.
The beginning is the hardest part when it comes to giving presentations. Having the full first minute of your presentation committed to memory will help you at the most critical moment.
As Stephen Lucas writes in The Art of Public Speaking, “Research has shown that a speaker’s anxiety level begins to drop significantly after the first 30 to 60 seconds of a presentation.”
Having memorized your first 60 seconds can give you a head start in overcoming the hardest part of your presentation. When those first moments have passed and you are still alive, standing and speaking, your fear starts to fade and your confidence starts to grow.
9 minutes before your presentation: Just breathe.
Calming exercises and meditation can certainly help in controlling pre-presentation anxiety, but if you need to deliver a high-energy talk on stage, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to slow yourself down just before stepping on stage.
My suggestion is instead to focus on your breathing. Anxiety stops us from breathing normally. Focus on breathing deeply, and you will find that your heart rate will slow down and you’ll feel less anxious.
8 minutes before your presentation: Stand up.
A study by the Harvard Business School shows that our pose influences how we perceive ourselves. If we make our bodies small, we will feel smaller—that means less powerful, and thus, less convincing on stage. And since you need to be persuasive, it’s much better if you feel big in front of your audience.
Standing will also make your heart rate go up, bringing more blood to the brain and activating more muscles in the body. This will prepare you for a high-energy delivery.
7 minutes before your presentation: Smile.
Your audience will mirror your mood. You don’t need to signal to them how tense you are. In fact, you should show a different side of yourself. The best way to ease your listeners into your presentation is to smile. Smiling is a universal symbol of openness and acceptance—it signals that you welcome your audience.
Moods are contagious. Your smile will make your audience feel more at ease.
6 minutes before your presentation: Meet the audience.
If nobody is talking before you, and you are all set before the time of your presentation, you have a terrific opportunity—time to talk to your audience members individually.
The abstract notion of “audience” will be radically transformed by just talking to one or two of them. They will no longer seem like a menacing group but rather an aggregate of individuals with names, personal stories, needs and aspirations.
This cue comes from Scott Berkun, author of Confessions of a Public Speaker, which highlights how beneficial it can be to have some friendly faces in the audience.
5 minutes before your presentation: Remember, you don’t look as nervous as you think.
Your presentation is about to start and you have a rush of thoughts in your head. Most of them are not calming at all. The good news is that your audience can’t see those thoughts.
Remember, you are the only person that is inside your head. Your audience has no idea how nervous you really are. You are standing in front of them greeting them, talking with them, your technology is already in order, you’re smiling. They will have no clue how you are feeling inside.
Your anxiety is going to be our little secret, right?
4 minutes before your presentation: Control your audience.
Before fear starts controlling you, start controlling your audience. Solicit their opinions. You can ask for a show of hands or ask something very simple and ask them to simply shout their answer. If they comply with some simple “orders” like tweeting with the correct hashtag or raising their hands if they are newcomers, then there is no point in fearing them, right?
3 minutes before your presentation: Never complain.
I’ll be honest—it’s really hard to stick to this one. When glitches happen during a presentation, it’s tempting to give in and complain. But complaining makes your audience focus on a fault, an error, something missing, something broken. You may know that your presentation looked better on a different projector, but your audience doesn’t need to know that. They need to focus on the benefit of your presentation, not on some technical glitch or shortcoming.
2 minutes before your presentation: Transform your fear into energy.
Let go. Don’t block your fear or anxiety. Let it circulate freely in your body and your mind. There is really no way that you can completely control it. You can do one thing, though—use your fear to give you energy and strength. You can limit the negative effects of anxiety as demonstrated in a study conducted by Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard Business School.
Yes, this is a presentation and it requires your alertness and attention. So use your fear to energize yourself, give you more focus, alertness and attention.
1 minute before your presentation: Don’t obsess over small details.
There is a difference between written and oral language. Even native speakers make small mistakes while speaking. It’s normal, and you shouldn’t obsess about it.
Instead of worrying about small details, focus on the big picture. Make sure you cover all the basics and never mind the smaller glitches that may happen during your talk. Nobody but you will recall these details, if they remain in the background of a great event.
Showtime: Just begin!
Your host has introduced you, your first slide is on the screen, and all eyes are on you. Fear strikes. Feel it. React to it by saying one word—the word that begins your presentation. You have rehearsed it and know it by heart. Count mentally to three and begin with your well-rehearsed first minute.
Addendum: Find your own routine.
This is my personal routine. It is so ingrained in my public speaking habits that I also have a checklist that I carry around when I’m speaking.
This post was written by Matteo Cassese, author of the innovative and creative presentation training platform Presentation Hero. Matteo is also a consultant and entrepreneur living in Berlin. For more of his writing, you can check out his blog.