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Mind-Shrink Yourself for Better Presentations

If overcoming nerves is your biggest block to giving an amazing presentation, try this little psychological trick.
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If you want to make presentations that enthrall your audience, there's plenty of advice out there, from using storytelling in your structure to incorporating elegant and engaging visuals. What you might struggle to find out there is acknowledgement that even the best designed presentation in the world will fail if the speaker giving it is overcome with nerves.

So if your problem with public speaking isn't your ideas or your design skills, but instead your nerves, what's to be done? Old stand-bys like plenty of practice or imagining your audience naked hardly seem like the silver bullet desired by anxious presenters. But speaking coach Olivia Mitchell, author of of Effective Speaking (she blogs at Speaking About Presenting), thinks she might have found an answer. In an interview recently with designer and presentation expert Nancy Duarte, Mitchell suggests nervous public speakers employ cognitive behavioral therapy—on themselves.

Mitchell argues that you can skip a trip to the psychologist but use the principles of this therapeutic technique to calm your nerves and improve your presenting skills. How?

By looking at the self-talk you have about speaking. Before I would get up to speak, I'd think "I must not look nervous. I want everyone to really think of me as confident and credible." But of course, then I'd be holding onto my notes and my hand would be shaking, and the notes would shake. I'd have a little drama in my head. Luckily I would keep it inside my head. That little drama in my head: Oh my God! They can see I'm nervous. This is just awful. I just want to get through this presentation.

Those thoughts create a vicious cycle that just makes you more and more nervous. What I've learned since then—and I wish I knew 20 years ago—is how to monitor my self-talk, to be aware of where I’m putting irrational pressure on myself. This can still happen to me now, with a high-stakes presentation, or something I've been working on for a really long time and I want to nail. I'd be saying to myself, "I've really got to get this one right. This is critical if I don't get this right. It's going to be a disaster."

This sort of interior monologue, Mitchell argues, increases the pressure a speaker feels leading to what’s commonly known as choking. By raising the stakes so high, and putting so much pressure on yourself. "You’re putting so much pressure on yourself, you can't perform," she says. "If I realize that I'm getting into that mode, I'll say, 'Okay, this is not so useful. What am I really trying to achieve here? What is critical and what is not? I want to do my best, I still have a goal of how I want to perform, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I make some mistakes.'"

If choking is your big presentation fear than Mitchell isn’t the only expert out there who thinks they can help. University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock has written an entire book on the topic, offering a bevy of tips to stop your from seizing up under pressure. When I spoke with her a few months ago she summed up a few suggestions:

  • Think about what you want to say, not what you don't want to say. When you try not to think or do something, it is often more likely to occur.
  • Know what you know. If you have memorized the introduction to your speech or what you are going to say in its entirety, just go with it and try not to think too much about every word. If you didn't memorize it, pause before key transitions to allow yourself time to regroup.
  • Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch.
  • Write it out. Writing about worries and stressful events in your life can help increase "working memory" (a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to "work" with all the information stuck in consciousness). It may even prevent other parts of your life (spouse, kids, house) from creeping in and distracting you under stress. This writing doesn't have to be long, 10 minutes before a big event or regularly for 10 minutes a week can help ensure that we make the most of the brainpower we have.

What do you do to calm your nerves during big presentations?

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Jan 18, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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