Sweaty palms, dry throat, hammering heart and a general feeling of fear assail the best of us at the mere prospect of facing and addressing a gathering. Whether it is conference delegates, bosses, colleagues or even students that we are to face, presentation anxiety is a common phenomenon.
The causes of performance anxiety during presentations can be broadly divided into the obvious and the somewhat more obscure. The obvious ones include:
- Worry due to a feeling of inadequacy: Negative experiences while facing an audience in the past, or entire lack thereof, can cause you to worry about how others might react to your presentation. The apprehension about how you would do compared to others and how your audience will rate you on your performance may sometimes weigh awfully heavily on your mind. Also, you may be anxious about not performing as well as you should when put to the test. Fear of failing, being judged by audience and being pronounced wanting, certainly is a daunting prospect.
- Awareness or lack of adequate preparation: Did you put together your presentation in a hurry? Does it look like a second rate effort? Did you have time to cross-check your facts and figures? Did you think through the kind of questions you are likely to be asked? Did you practice and rehearse sufficiently? Is your presentation well structured, logical and engaging? If you are not well-prepared, doubts like these would definitely plague you.
If you cannot really put a finger on what exactly is causing you to feel anxious, then it could simply be in your nature to feel nervous about facing an audience.
Symptoms of performance anxiety are typically the outcome of the fight or flight reaction that occurs when we feel threatened or face danger. Shortness of breath, accelerated heartbeat, sweaty palms, dry mouth, upset stomach, loss of appetite, irritability, headaches, insomnia, extreme restlessness, trembling voice and a surge of adrenaline are potent enough to heighten nervous tension sufficiently to make you a nervous wreck before, during and after a presentation.
For some of us, dealing with presentation anxiety can be excessively harrowing. You do not want to be thinking: ‘I can’t do this,’ ‘It’s going to be a mega-disaster,’ ‘I am not cut out for this,’ ‘I’m making a laughing stock of myself.’ Such negative thoughts create a cycle that feeds your anxiety, heightening your sense of nervousness. The more negative thoughts you allow, the more your stress builds up. Your fears then become a self-fulfilling prophecy – you will actually prove every fear right if you do not take steps to control your anxiety.
Fortunately, for those of us who do not have nerves of steel, help is at hand! A number of studies point to several strategies and interventions that can be adopted to address the issue and help you through your ordeal. Only thing is, if you are the really nervous kind and don’t want to end up a wreck at the psychiatrist’s office, you have to be actively engaged in understanding and implementing these strategies before, during and after the event. Handling anxiety during the performance, therefore, requires preparation and time investment before the event, in addition to controlling stress during the presentation. Here are some strategies to follow:
- It would serve you well to keep short tasks related to your presentation handy for the audience to do. These could be questions that need short discussions among groups, or charts that need to be drawn, or predictions that can be made based on data. When you need time out to calm yourself, steer the audience to one of these tasks and then take a breather. Take a few deep breaths. Clear your mind and focus on remaining calm. Focus on converting your negative thoughts into positive reinforcement statements. For example, instead of thinking, ‘they are going to try and tear me up with their questions’, reword your thought to: ‘They are going to ask me sensible questions and give me the opportunity to put across my point of view convincingly’. ‘I am not cut out for this… The last time I faced an audience it went horribly wrong.’ Though that may be true, rephrase that to: ‘Just because I had a problem the last time does not mean it will happen again – I am wiser, more seasoned, competent and can handle it much better. I will do well!’ Affirmations such as these go a long way in slowly, but surely dissolving anxiety. They help keep you in a better frame of mind, automatically reducing your fear of failure. This in turn builds your confidence and you end up doing well. The key to overcoming the psychological barrier with regard to performance is to replace dark and negative thoughts with positive ones.
- It helps to visualize your audience as your allies. If you are on the brink of a breakdown, take time out by calling a short break. Take this time to think of the presentation as a successful event; visualize yourself confidently making your presentation; imagine yourself being congratulated by colleagues upon completion of your presentation; think of celebrating the completion of the task post the event; visualize yourself comfortably moving on with the regular routines of your life after the experience. Visualization is a powerful way of overcoming psychological handicaps, particularly those whose basis is anxiety. You should, of course, have practiced these very thoughts days before the event for them to have a meaningful impact.
- Control your nervousness by breaking your thought process by sipping on water. Pause for a moment. Pick up slowly and moderate your pace. When you slow down, you give yourself time to collect your thoughts.
- Focus on making eye contact with open and friendly faces. Smile at them – they will likely smile back at you and boost your confidence.
- Flex and relax your leg muscles to relieve tension. Though you should move around to expend nervous energy, avoid pacing back and forth.
- Remind yourself that the purpose of the presentation is to share information, not for others to pass judgement on your presentation abilities. Concentrate on communicating your message to the audience.
- Remember that the audience are ordinary people like you – they are no smarter than you, nor do they know everything you are going to tell them. You have something worthwhile to share with them. They know this. Believe that they are with you in the learning process.
Finally, do not take yourself too seriously! If you do make a fool of yourself, stop and laugh. Being anxious is not a calamity. It is not a weakness either. All you have to do is be positive enough to channel your nervous energy into productive outcomes.
It is actually good to have a little bit of performance anxiety during a presentation – it keeps you alert and motivated.
Manage your stress. And good luck for a great presentation!