Presentation Anxiety (Part 1): Remove uncertainty and nerves evaporate!

  • Speaking in public can be an all-in-one fear.
  • Anxiety is directly linked to the amount of uncertainty we feel.
  • Deal with the cause (uncertainty), not the symptoms (nerves)!

 

Why do we get nervous?

Anxiety can take many forms—feeling sick, a shaky voice, sleepless nights, dry mouth—but they all come from the same source. Anxiety (and the symptoms of ‘nervousness’) is directly linked to the amount of uncertainty we feel. It occurs when we feel we have an ‘incomplete knowledge of the situation’ and is made worse when we don’t know when it will end.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to find things to be uncertain about … especially when it comes to presenting in front of an audience. Our mind can pose dozens of questions that can’t be answered simply, such as:

  • how will I be judged?
  • will it go well?
  • what if I forget something?

Fortunately the problem comes with its own solution—take away the uncertainty and the nervousness disappears. Sounds too simple. The solution is simple. It’s just that it may have many layers to it.

 

You’re in good company—even the best presenters get the shakes

Nerves are normal. Sportspeople, singers, actors and professional speakers admit to being nervous. The sports team you follow will have people who go through rituals to mentally prepare. Barbra Streisand, Lawrence Olivier, Luciano Pavarotti and the members of Led Zeppelin are all on record as saying they suffer from stage fright. So, if we apply the theory that anxiety results from uncertainty, why do so many obviously talented and experienced people suffer from nervousness?

 

The all-in-one fear

Being the focus of attention while doing something you see as ‘important’ embodies many fears. These include a fear of failure, of embarrassment, of losing control, of being judged, of showing weakness, of exposing ignorance, or (and this is a big one) of disappointing other people or ourselves. Uncertainty comes with one of these fears or a combination of them. It’s easy to see, then, how anyone can be uncertain about the quality of a presentation or the judgements of others.

So, in a nutshell, we are nervous because we have an emotional investment in the outcome of an event and your brain registers many presentations to be an ‘important event.’ Now, guess what it does to help you with these events? It produces adrenaline and makes it available throughout the body, because adrenaline gives you energy. It figures you can use this energy to ensure your event goes well. Nice, huh? Unfortunately for many of us, we get more ‘help’ than we want. Virtually all the outward symptoms of anxiety are a result of this adrenaline.

 

Flip your perception for a relaxed response

So how do you respond if you become overly affected when experiencing mild nervousness? Well, the problem might be that you’re unaware it’s mild.

For example, imagine your major symptom is that your hands shake. You can mentally respond in one of two ways.

 

Firstly, with some focus:

You observe your shaking hands and think, ‘This damn adrenaline, maybe I can move a bit and shake it out of my system, or maybe I’ll find something to lean on while I’m presenting or put my hands in my pocket—either way I know it’s normal. It’s not stopping me from getting my message across. The audience probably haven’t even noticed and they only really care about how the information will affect them anyway.’

 

Or, with uncertainty:

You observe your shaking hand and think,’Oh no, I’m losing control of my hand. I’m about to present in front of the Board and I’m losing control of my bodily functions—where will it end! What if I lose control of other parts of my body? What if I go blank and look like an idiot? What if … What if …’’

 

The second response is the more common reaction … bringing in new fears of the unknown such as, ‘When will this feeling end’? This sends more adrenaline through the system which can increase the physical symptoms, and before you know it your nervousness is spiralling out of control.

So the problem is not the physical symptoms—which exist, but are minor—it is the way we perceive what is happening and the uncertainty-spiral we create. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to flip the perception—and the negative feelings—around.

 

Deal with the cause, not the symptoms

Nervousness is a normal, natural response to the body of a human being who wants to do well at a given event. Neither the nervousness nor the physical symptoms should frighten you. Deal with the cause of the fear—not the symptoms—by having more certainty about what is really happening. Altering your perception of anxiety will improve your presentations.

 

What does success look like for you?

Do you have a clear idea of what you believe is a good presentation for you? Most people don’t. If you don’t know what a good presentation is, it’s going to be difficult to achieve it. Having a plan with clear guidelines in your mind of what you want to achieve (and what you need to avoid) is simple. Yet it is this simple thing that will create your framework of certainty … and help nervousness evaporate.

 

Summary

Anxiety comes when we feel our knowledge of the situation is incomplete. This lack of knowledge leads to insecurity … and then to anxiety. Don’t focus on the physical symptoms; relax by dealing with the causes of uncertainty.

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