The question I’m asked most often in workshops and coaching sessions is, “I get really nervous when I present; can you help me eliminate my anxiety?” And my answer is that having at least some anxiety is actually a good sign. It means that, at that moment, you’re engaged. You are plugged into your audience and your message. It means you care.
In addition to my work with The Latimer Group, I spent 18 years deeply involved with the US Olympic Sailing Program, first as an athlete, then later as the Chairman and Team Leader. I competed at an elite level and spent eight years leading the program through two Olympic Games. And I have seen anxiety in many forms.
Anxiety can come from a fear of failure, it can come from the realization that you are not ready, and it can simply come from caring a lot. I have seen elite athletes, ranked among the best in the world, who know they are good, vomit before they compete. Their anxiety does not come from a place of self-doubt. In some cases, the anxiety simply comes from a heightened level of competitiveness.
Now, if your anxiety comes because you know you are not ready to present, because you have not practiced, or because you know you do not know what you are talking about — well, in that case, the answer is simple. Get your act together, prepare and practice. But if anxiety comes even though you have prepared, then it’s from another place, and you have to learn how to manage it.
The bottom line is that preparation and practice are required. And if, even then, you still have some anxiety, you simply have to realize it is probably never going away. Some anxiety can indeed be a good thing, after all. But we need to manage it. So here are some steps that always help manage that anxiety.
1. Set clearly defined goals for your presentation. What’s the purpose of your presentation? What do you want your audience to do when your session is over? Knowing where you are trying to go can help reduce anxiety. Not knowing, absolutely increases it.
2. Know your audience. Who are the key people in the room? What’s important to them? Are you able to anticipate their potential questions, objections or concerns? The more you know about an audience, the less intimidating they can be.
3. Know your message. What are the most important parts of your message plan? What key points are you trying to make? If your audience takes nothing else from your presentation, what elements must they remember? When we know what we want to say, anxiety is easier to manage.
4. Have a stress management routine. Each of us might manage it a little differently. For many, deep breathing can help. So can positive self talk. Perhaps phone a trusted voice. I also like to remind myself that I know what I am talking about, and that I have done this before. Come up with your own routine… but make sure you have a routine.
5. Practice. Practice out loud. How does anyone get good at anything? Practice is non-negotiable. But make sure you practice in the correct ways… don’t just read your slide deck or notes in silence. Actually say the words you plan to speak out loud — especially the first few minutes of your planned presentation. Your first few minutes is likely when you will be most nervous. So make sure that section feels well practiced.
Don’t worry about eliminating your anxiety entirely; remember, some anxiety can be a good thing. It can sharpen your focus. Just think about being prepared, practice, and have a plan to manage the anxiety so it does not debilitate your performance.
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