At its simplest, presentation anxiety is a subset of performance anxiety where the fear of public failure triggers a stress response. Many professionals, fine under other circumstances, experience temporary symptoms like accelerated heart rate, trembling in the hands and legs, butterflies in the tummy, and loss of cognition when facing an audience. It’s the classic fight, flight or freeze response found in many animals, but with a uniquely human twist:
• It’s true that we can’t think as clearly when we’re under duress, but even more important is the phenomenon that under stress, we actually pay more attention to negative stimuli and could perceive a normally ambiguous situation as more negative. For instance, an anxious speaker might perceive “spirited debate” as questioning her authority.
• Our social information processing skills also suffer. For example, if an audience member asks a question with just the right intonation, the speaker may perceive it as more hostile than it really is, especially if the speaker has some history with the asker.
• Our perception of control also takes a hit. When we’re anxious we feel like we have less control over a situation than we really do. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, so the more we perceive a loss of control, the more out-of-control we become. But the reverse is also true. The more areas of control we uncover, the calmer we feel. So:
TIP #1. Control what you can and let the rest go.
Clients often tell me they feel more confident and in control when they are well-versed in their topic. Excellent! YOU have control over how (and how much) you prepare. At Heads Up we teach a very specific, practical and efficient method of preparation. It eliminates time-suck items (like too many slides) and enhances audience awareness and engagement. If you can look in the mirror before a presentation and say to yourself “I’ve prepared the best I can” then you are ready. There’s nothing more to be done, so you might as well relax and look forward to sharing your knowledge.
TIP #2. Be aware of your body signals.
Physical symptoms like those mentioned above alert you that you are in a heightened state. If your heart rate is a little faster than usual, it might not be stress. It might be excitement! However, if your heart rate exceeds 100 BPM for a sustained period of time, you are probably too anxious to think clearly. Take steps to slow your heart rate using various biofeedback techniques. You CAN calm your body which will, in turn, calm your mind. Try this free download.
TIP #3. Do a reality check.
Research shows that most people are inaccurate when assessing their own performance. Arrange to get quality, targeted feedback from trusted resources. In fact, invite them to your final practice session and get the feedback in advance while there’s still time to do something about it. Redirect time and energy away from perfecting your slides and towards practicing out loud, hopefully with a friend as your audience.
A happy ending: One of my clients used to suffer from presentation anxiety and hated public speaking, but she was so talented and knowledgeable that she was always being asked to present. One day I said to her: “You dislike this now, but my prediction is that someday this will be your favorite part of your job!” Of course she denied this as a possibility. However, with practice, she felt more and more in control until, about a year after my prediction she sent me an e-mail and told me it was, in fact, true. She now enjoyed having the chance to share her expertise and drive growth in a new industry.
Could it happen to you?