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3 Tips to Combat Anxiety Before a Presentation

First step: Don't hate yourself. Performance anxiety has afflicted countless leaders, from Cicero to Thomas Jefferson to Gandhi.
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If you get nervous, or even anxious, before a big speech or presentation, you need to remember two things: First, you're not alone. Many great leaders in history have experienced the same condition. Second, you're dealing with a solvable problem. 

Other Great Leaders Have Had This Problem

In 1889, Mahatma Gandhi, who was then a young lawyer, got so nervous during his first time in front of a judge that he literally ran out of the courtroom. For years, "the awful strain of public speaking" stopped him from speaking to groups, even at dinner parties and once, even, at the meeting of a local vegetarian society, notes a recent article in The Atlantic

And Gandhi is hardly the only legendary leader to have gone through this sort of performance anxiety. Other big names whose nervousness is noted in the Atlantic article include Thomas Jefferson, Cicero, and Demosthenes. 

Okay, So I'm Not Alone. How Do I Get Better? 

Here are three tips that can help alleviate your nervousness before a big speech or presentation. These tips provide just a glimpse of the improvement that's possible through coaching and increased practice.

1. Visualize something positive. "Imagine something that you love is in the room with you, or even keep a picture of something you love on the podium, or in your pocket," suggests Mark Heaps on Duarte.com. "I've seen great speakers keep images of their children on their teleprompter because of this technique." 

2. Find a reason to be excited about your speech. Ever wonder why it's easy to speak nonstop for three minutes about your favorite movie, yet comparably difficult to stand before your coworkers and talk about anything? Likewise, ever wonder why it's easy to sing your favorite tune at karaoke, yet nerve-racking to sing under audition circumstances? Obviously, there's more on the line at work or at an audition, and that's no small part of it. But another part of it, according to the studies of Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks, is your own passion about the topic. 

Brooks actually tested this theory in a karaoke setting, using Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" as the song. She asked singers to declare whether they were excited, anxious, or calm before performing the tune. The "excited" performers sang the best.

The takeaway here? Whatever you're speaking about, find one or two facets of it that truly excite you. And when you get nervous, think about those facets. 

3. Finesse the flaws. When I was 12 years old, and getting coached on how to sing in front of hundreds of people for my Bar Mitzvah, my coach gave me some simple but practical advice: "If you mess up, keep going. No one else will notice." His point was that I was the only one in the room with a script (or, in this case, the scripture). Today, as a novelist who often gives readings in front of crowds, the situation is similar. I can garble or misread my own words, but I just keep going. If I act like the mistake isn't a big deal to me, then it won't be a big deal to my audience. 

Psychologist and author Tamar Chansky calls this "finessing the flaws" in a Huffington Post article. She cites a grade-school music teacher, who tells students: "If you make a mistake during a performance, as long as you don't jump up and down pointing to yourself accusingly and have your facial expression or gestures say in so many words 'That was me!' then the audience will not even notice."

And if the audience notices? It's not the end of the world. Just keep going. "People will see what a cool, well-adjusted person you are," she writes, "who knows full well that a small glitch or stumble over words barely scratches the surface of your vast, limitless self-worth."

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Dec 25, 2013




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