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Overcoming Nervousness

It's completely normal to get a bit of stage fright before a big presentation. I've been giving technical presentations for more than 15 years, and I love doing it, but I still get butterflies in my stomach before each class or workshop or conference presentation.

Practice!

Make sure you factor in sufficient time for practice when you're preparing to give a presentation. Practice sessions help you get more comfortable with the content of your talk, work out how you want to phrase things, and fine-tune the pacing and flow. Building confidence through practice is by far the best way to reduce nervousness.

Importantly, you'll get the most benefit if you take your practice talks seriously. The best advice I ever got about performance anxiety is to practice the way you'll perform. That means mimicking the real setting as much as possible (e.g., stand up and use a projector) and saying the exact things you plan to say in the actual talk.

Minimize presentation day stress

There are few worse feelings than a major fail right before a big presentation. Running late to the conference room, having your computer die, discovering that your slide deck won't open properly... Even if you're able to salvage the situation, you're now a bundle of anxiety during your presentation.

Save yourself this pain by being well-prepared on presentation day:

  • Test the technology in advance, if possible. For example, some conferences ask you to load your slides on their computer, so you'll want to check that there aren't any weird file conversion issues (e.g., missing fonts, Mac-to-PC issues, PowerPoint version compatibility, videos that won't play, etc.)
  • Arrive at least 15 min early. In some cases, you'll be able to set up early and troubleshoot any last-minute tech issues. In other cases, all you can do is sit there and wait, but that's still a valuable opportunity to relax and get into your performance mindset.
  • Always have backups of your slides. You never know when technology might fail you. I recommend the following:
    • Have a copy of your presentation in at least 2 separate locations, e.g. on your computer + on a memory stick or in the cloud.
    • Have versions of your slides in at least 2 formats, e.g. a PowerPoint file + a PDF.

Breathe & get grounded

Taking a few deep breaths before you start your talk can help calm down your sympathetic nervous system. If you tend to rush increasingly throughout your talk, you might add reminders to breath at key points in your notes.

As for getting grounded, I mean literally feeling the connection between your feet and the ground. Personally, I find that a balanced stance with feet about shoulder distance apart makes me feel more stable and comfortable. Focusing on the physical sensations also helps me get out of my own head, and it reduces nervous movements like swaying.

Use notes as a safety net

Students often ask whether it's good to use notes in a presentation. Truthfully, there's no one "right" answer. I've seen effective presenters use everything from full scripts to bulleted note cards to no notes at all. You just need to find what works best for YOU. Notes are a great crutch to keep your presentation on track, but they also tend to interfere with audience engagement. I recommend using as few notes as possible without reaching the point where you get lost in your voiceover or skip important content. And how do you determine where that balance is for you? Practice!

Put nervousness in perspective

Remember that everyone gets nervous before presenting, so don't add to your distress by feeling bad about your own stage fright. It's also worth noting that anxiety in moderation can actually be helpful. I find that the adrenaline rush when I give a presentation helps me be more focused and energetic.

So on your presentation day, feel secure knowing that you've done everything you can to be well-prepared, and just get up there and do your thing. You've got this.


CC-BY license

This article by Dr. Robyn Javier is licensed under CC BY 4.0