Don’t Let Anxiety Sabotage Your Next Presentation
If you want to beat speaking anxiety, you need to stop focusing on yourself and point your focus outward. This shift isn’t something that can happen instantaneously. It takes time, patience, and practice. Here’s how to get started.
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How many times have you had an important message to share, only to be sabotaged by anxiety right before you speak?
The pre-presentation jitters can be intense. Sweaty palms, dry mouth, a sour stomach. After almost two decades as a human connection keynote speaker and television host — presenting in front of cameras and interviewing leaders — I’ve observed countless people who struggle with this.
The number one cause is almost always uncertainty. We wonder: Will our message be heard? Will we be able to land the contract, close the deal, or influence the boss to view things differently?
When all eyes are on us, we feel more exposed. Our flight-or-fight instincts kick in, and we do what’s natural to protect our well-being. If we experience social anxiety, we may avoid eye contact or hide behind a podium. If we don’t want to be addressed directly, we may even create a never-ending PowerPoint deck.
When I first started speaking professionally, I experienced this myself. There were times when I was so focused on how I was coming across, I nearly forgot what I was going to say. It usually works this way. The more we care, the more nervous we become, and the more difficult it is to persuasively and confidently portray our message.
I tried all the tactics: I visualized my desired outcome. I took deep breaths. I prepared for hours beforehand. But my anxiety was still an overwhelming obstacle — until I discovered one simple technique.
The thing I’ve come to learn after all these years is that if you want to beat speaking anxiety, you need to stop focusing on yourself and point your focus outward. This shift isn’t something that can happen instantaneously. It takes time, patience, and practice.
Here’s how to get started.
There’s a big difference between presenters that are givers and those that are takers.
Takers tend to have more anxiety. They want and need validation from their listeners. They wonder: Will the audience like me? Will they pay attention to me? Will they find my jokes funny?
They often struggle with virtual communication because they aren’t receiving the feedback they used to feed off of in-person.
Givers, on the other hand, are all about service. They do work beforehand to connect with stakeholders and use the information they receive to address the needs of their audience. As a result, they can confidently speak to specific pain points, and the focus of their presentation becomes less about them and more about helping the other people in the room grow and meet their goals. It becomes an act of service as opposed to a talent show or self-evaluation.
To shift your mindset into that of a giver, you need to get out of your own head. This is where step two comes in.
If you want to turn your presentation into an act of service, you need to talk to the people in the room — well before your presentation begins. Choose about three to five influential leaders that will be in your audience or virtual setting and make an effort to schedule some time with each. A short coffee or lunch break will suffice. You can say something like, “Could we connect for 15 minutes prior to the presentation next week? Would love to check in and learn what you feel the group needs most right now.”
Your conversation will depend on the goal of your upcoming presentation. But, in general, you should use your time together to ask for their take on what they’ve been struggling with, the challenges that need to be confronted or the heroes that need to be celebrated — relative to the topic you are planning to discuss. As you prepare, incorporate these findings, where appropriate, into your presentation.
For example, let’s say you have an upcoming meeting with a few important stakeholders at your organization. Your goal as the presenter is to persuade your manager and the head of the marketing department and their team to launch a TikTok channel to help grow your brand awareness. Instead of presenting a plan you came up with entirely on your own, talk to both your boss and the head of marketing about their thoughts, concerns, and team goals beforehand.
Of course, you’ll also want to do your own research and provide evidence that backs up the argument you are making. But now that you know what you’re up against (aka what your stakeholders are worried about) and the larger goals your company is trying to reach (aka what your stakeholders want most), you can use the information you gather to support your own argument and also address the concerns of your most important audience members.
When it’s time for you to present, focus on speaking to those people in the room. In the example above, this would be your boss and the head of marketing. Doing so will help you take on a personal and empathetic tone — allowing you to more easily connect with your listeners. More importantly, it will help you shift your focus outwards, from yourself to the audience, and as a result, ease some of your nerves. In addition, you will earn trust and respect from your peers by demonstrating you are aware of the problems the group is facing and have ideas around how to solve them.
We’ve all been there: We’re standing in front of a room, about to begin our presentation, and then everything goes white. Our eyes scan the audience, but fail to see anyone. In a fit of anxiety, we panic.
This happens to the best of us, and it will likely continue to happen after you practice the steps outlined above. Remember that building confidence and calming your mind in the moment takes practice. There is, however, a tactic that has helped me turn back outward, even when my anxiety is trying to pull me in.
If you want to ground your nerves, try this: Find your fab five. These are five people you can consistently lock eyes with in the crowd, so that it feels like you are having several personal conversations.
Take your time with this. Speak to one person and share a thought or idea, then move to the next one. Use your entire space. The people in the back and on the sides of the room will be appreciative of your attention as the ones in the middle will be getting most of your eye contact.
In virtual meetings, this may be a challenge because your audience members can’t tell you’re looking directly at them. In this case, focus on the people you connected with before your presentation. You can call on them directly, ask them for feedback, and make them active contributors in the conversation.
Whether in-person or virtual, this will help you see the room clearly again.
Public speaking can be a nerve-wracking experience. Approach the exercise with an intent of giving, and you will loosen up, have fun, and maximize the impact you have on your audience. Like anything, the more speaking reps you can get in, the stronger your presenting muscles will become. Soon you’ll be able to transform your anxiety into the infectious excitement that will help you make a meaningful connection with your audience.
Don’t Let Anxiety Sabotage Your Next Presentation
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