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Caution: Don’t Let Anxiety Drive Your Next Presentation

Many of us have had this experience. We get so nervous about a presentation – a pitch to a major investor prospect; a keynote address at the foremost international conference of your industry; your first board meeting as the company’s new CEO; and so on – that we decide this particular presentation is the performance that defines whether we are great or not, the performance that will make or break our career. We don’t sleep because of it. We get blocked when trying to compose it and help from others feels useless.

Our nerves takeover, and then the worst happens: We get so hyper-focused on addressing our nervousness that we go on autopilot during our presentation. We let our adrenalin lead the way. We become fixated on just getting through the presentation.

Why is giving your talk in autopilot mode such a problem? Because several of the strategies that are essential for a stellar presentation will likely be missed. If your (private) goal is simply to get through the presentation, you will lose your capacity to:

    • READ YOUR AUDIENCE IN ADVANCE. It is essential to make every effort possible to interact with your audience members before you give your presentation. This may sound silly and obvious, but it is neither.

Especially when the audience is substantial, but even when it is just a small group, presenters often reserve informal conversation for after their talk. Even those who do interact with audience members beforehand often limit it to the people they know. If you don’t speak with your participants right before your presentation, you won’t know their mood, expectations, concerns, distractions, etc., on that particular day. Getting a read of your audience just moments before you go on stage gives you the opportunity to ensure that your presentation style is in keeping with the ‘pulse’ of your audience. Reading your audience members, in this context, refers to both verbal and non-verbal cues, e.g., the look in their eyes, their tone and posture when speaking with you, their negative or positive attitude when speaking, etc.

Informal conversations with individual audience members immediately prior to your presentation can also substantially reduce the adrenalin running through your body and help prevent you from going into autopilot mode during your presentation. Even a small amount of familiar, relatively light-hearted interaction has the power to distract you and lower your anxiety before all eyes turn to you.

    • BE FLEXIBLE. Flexibility is essential, yet nervous energy can make us inflexible and diminish our capacity for spontaneous creativity during our presentation. 

You need to be flexible and open-minded to be able to read the tenor of your audience. Flexibility positions you to adapt your presentation style prior to going on stage and/or at any point during the presentation. Be flexible in your responses to questions and comments. Give the impression of flexibility and comfort through your body language, tone and inflection in your voice, eye contact, etc. Your audience will pick up and may respond negatively to both verbal and non-verbal cues, in some cases without even realizing it.

    • LISTEN NOT JUST WITH YOUR EARS, BUT ALSO WITH YOUR EYES, BODY LANGUAGE AND FACIAL EXPRESSION.

In the same way that our nerves can impede our ability to craft and prepare for our presentation, they can also limit our capacity to pause, take a deep breath and listen authentically to the questions people pose once we have finished our song-and-dance. More than anything else, people need to feel heard and that you deem their question important. They may be as nervous asking their question as you were before or during your presentation.

Use eye contact, an open posture and a warm (never speculative or judging) facial expression to give affirmation (even when you think their question is completely off the wall). Repeating their question is an especially good strategy to make them feel heard. It also gives you the opportunity to sharpen and crystallize their question in a way that makes them feel especially smart and also ensures the rest of the audience understands it.

    • NOT KNOWING THE ANSWER IS FINE. GIVING AN OFF-POINT OR SHALLOW RESPONSE SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU WANT YOUR AUDIENCE TO THINK YOU KNOW THE ANSWER IS NOT.

Given your role as the resident expert on your presentation topic, it’s natural for you to feel you need to have an immediate and incredibly provocative answer to every question posed. I’m here to tell you that this is not the case. In fact, just the opposite is true. A lofty or even slightly off-point answer can leave a lasting negative impression and diminish your credibility.

By the same token, you can earn more credibility and gain greater appreciation (and increase your likability quotient) if you pause for a moment to consider their question, affirm it was a good one and then tell them (and the rest of the audience) that it deserves more thought and you would like to get back to them at a later point. You can use such lines as, “That’s an interesting question. Thank you for making all of us think about it. I don’t want to give you a shoot-from-the-hip answer. Let me think about it and get back to you.” You can commit to speaking with them right after the presentation or get their email to respond in writing, which obviously buys you more time.

    • SILENCE WHEN YOU INVITE THE AUDIENCE TO ASK QUESTIONS IS NOT A SIGN OF FAILURE. 

You may have an especially shy audience. You may have captivated your audience so fully with your presentation that they didn’t dare get distracted with generating their own questions. Who knows why they are not deluging you with questions. It doesn’t matter.

Simply have some questions at the ready to throw out to your audience. Posing questions to them will transfer some of the power back to your audience and encourage them to use their voice. It will also help keep your anxiety down because you will be in control, at least to start, of the scope of the questions asked.

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Below are some strategies to help control your anxiety on the day of your presentation. These may sound obvious or like ‘fluff’ to some of you, but I promise you they are neither.

    • While it is certainly fine to review your notes on the day of, you also need to set a cutoff point to your prepping efforts that is well in advance of stage time. Your mind needs a break so it can regenerate and give you fresh energy for your presentation. Go for a walk; do something you excel in (professionally or personally); call someone who makes you laugh; or whatever works for you.
    • About 30-60mins before (or preferably even closer to the time of) your presentation, force yourself to sit down for 15mins, close your eyes (or, for those of you who think that’s too hokey, focus your eyes on something in the room), and draw on the mental ‘toolbox’ of effective distractions that you have established for yourself when you’re at the height of anxiety. Effective distractions vary for each of us, depending on our personality, anxiety level and the types of thoughts about people, places or things that bring us joy or at least some positive energy. Distractions may include: the award you won last year that made you feel so proud; the new business deal you just closed; how much all of the kids on your daughter’s soccer team love having you as their coach; the vacation you have coming up with your loved one; the hilarious thing your dog did yesterday; etc.
    • Definitely don’t engage in anything professional or personal on the day of that heightens your anxiety. I know that some of you are thinking that this suggestion is shortsighted on my part and unachievable on yours. But, even if you’re the CEO and your schedule is overloaded with critical decisions, meetings and tasks, you still owe it to yourself and to your company to lighten your work schedule and/or limit it to only meetings and tasks that makes us feel especially competent, confident and accomplished on the day of a big presentation.

Have any more suggestions to offer? I hope this post has been affirming and helpful to you. Most of all, I hope it helps you realize that it is not only okay but actually human to feel anxious, and that your anxiety doesn’t need to dictate the fate of your presentation, or anything else in your life for that matter.

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