I’ve been doing a lot of presenting recently, and I have no problem admitting that it’s tough. For those not born with natural eloquence, public speaking can be remarkably nerve-racking.
We can’t all deliver the next Gettysburg Address, but there are several small things you can do prior to your next big presentation that will help calm your nerves and set you up for optimal oration.
1. Practice. Naturally, you’ll want to rehearse your presentation multiple times. While it can be difficult for those with packed schedules to spare time to practice, it’s essential if you want to deliver a rousing presentation. If you really want to sound great, write out your speech rather than taking chances winging it.
Try to practice where you’ll be delivering your talk. Some acting strategists suggest rehearsing lines in various positions–standing up, sitting down, with arms open wide, on one leg, while sitting on the toilet, etc. (OK, that last one may be optional.) The more you mix up your position and setting, the more comfortable you’ll feel with your speech. Also try recording your presentation and playing it back to evaluate which areas need work. Listening to recordings of your past talks can clue you in to bad habits you may be unaware of, as well as inspiring the age-old question: “Is that what I really sound like?”
2. Transform Nervous Energy Into Enthusiasm. It may sound strange, but I’ll often down an energy drink and blast hip-hop music in my earphones before presenting. Why? It pumps me up and helps me turn jitters into focused enthusiasm. Studies have shown that an enthusiastic speech can win out over an eloquent one, and since I’m not exactly the Winston Churchill of presenters, I make sure that I’m as enthusiastic and energetic as possible before going on stage. Of course, individuals respond differently to caffeine overload, so know your own body before guzzling those monster energy drinks.
3. Attend Other Speeches. If you’re giving a talk as part of a larger series, try to attend some of the earlier talks by other presenters. This shows respect for your fellow presenters while also giving you a chance to feel out the audience. What’s the mood of the crowd? Are folks in the mood to laugh or are they a bit more stiff? Are the presentations more strategic or tactical in nature? Another speaker may also say something that you can play off of later in your own presentation.
4. Arrive Early. It’s always best to allow yourself plenty of time to settle in before your talk. Extra time ensures you won’t be late (even if Google Maps shuts down) and gives you plenty of time to get adapted to your presentation space.
5. Adjust to Your Surroundings. The more adjusted to your environment you are, the more comfortable you’ll feel. Make sure to spend some in the room where you will be delivering your presentation. If possible, practice with the microphone and lighting, make sure you understand the seating, and be aware of any distractions potentially posed by the venue (e.g., a noisy road outside).
6. Meet and Greet. Do your best to chat with people before your presentation. Talking with audiences makes you seem more likeable and approachable. Ask event attendees questions and take in their responses. They may even give you some inspiration to weave into your talk.
7. Use Positive Visualization. Whether or not you consider yourself a master of Zen, know that plenty of studies have proven the effectiveness of positive visualization. When we imagine a positive outcome to a scenario in our mind, it’s more likely to play out the way we envision.
Instead of thinking “I’m going to be terrible out there” and visualizing yourself throwing up mid-presentation, imagine yourself getting tons of laughs while presenting with the enthusiasm of Jimmy Fallon and the poise of Audrey Hepburn (the charm of George Clooney wouldn’t hurt either). Positive thoughts can be incredibly effective–give them a shot.
8. Take Deep Breaths. The go-to advice for jitters has truth to it. When we’re nervous, our muscles tighten–you may even catch yourself holding your breath. Instead, go ahead and take those deep breaths to get oxygen to your brain and relax your body.
9. Smile. Smiling increases endorphins, replacing anxiety with calm and making you feel good about your presentation. Smiling also exhibits confidence and enthusiasm to the crowd. Just don’t overdue it–no one enjoys the maniacal clown look.
10. Exercise. Exercise earlier in the day prior to your presentation to boost endorphins, which will help alleviate anxiety. Better pre-register for that Zumba class!
11. Work on Your Pauses. When you’re nervous, it’s easy to speed up your speech and end up talking too fast, which in turn causes you to run out of breath, get more nervous, and panic! Ahh!
Don’t be afraid to slow down and use pauses in your speech. Pausing can be used to emphasize certain points and to help your talk feel more conversational. If you feel yourself losing control of your pacing, just take a nice pause and keep cool.
12. Use a Power Stance. Practicing confident body language is another way to boost your pre-presentation jitters. When your body is physically demonstrating confidence, your mind will follow suit. While you don’t want to be jutting out your chest in an alpha gorilla pose all afternoon (somebody enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a bit too much), studies have shown that using power stances a few minutes before giving a talk (or heading to a nerve-racking interview) creates a lasting sense of confidence and assurance. Whatever you do, don’t sit–sitting is passive. Standing or walking a bit will help you harness those stomach bats (isn’t that more appropriate than butterflies?). Before you go on stage, strike your best Power Ranger stance and hold your head high!
13. Drink Water. Dry mouth is a common result of anxiety. Prevent cottonmouth blues by staying hydrated and drinking plenty of water before your talk (just don’t forget to hit the bathroom before starting). Keep a bottle of water at arm’s reach while presenting in case you get dry mouth while chatting up a storm. It also provides a solid object to hurl at potential hecklers. (That’ll show ‘em.)
14. Join Toastmasters. Toastmaster clubs are groups across the country (and the world) dedicated to helping members improve their public speaking skills. Groups get together during lunch or after work to take turns delivering short talks on a chosen topic. The more you present, the better you’ll be, so consider joining a Toastmaster club to become a top-notch orator. Just don’t forget, it’s BYOB (Bring Your Own Bread).
15. Don’t Fight the Fear. Accept your fear rather than trying to fight it. Getting yourself worked up by wondering if people will notice your nervousness will only intensify your anxiety. Remember, those jitters aren’t all bad–harness that nervous energy and transform it into positive enthusiasm and you’ll be golden. We salute you, O Captain! My Captain!