On Nervousness, And Overcoming It: Making Speeches And Presentations Easier

March 25, 2013

Don't cry for me, Argentina

I truly enjoy — and absolutely hate — public speaking. That sentiment applies to giving important presentations and other similar events that don’t really count as “public speaking.”

It’s great fun, but it’s also nerve-wracking. I’m far from an accomplished public speaker, but when you count a couple of moderately significant speaking gigs and countless client meetings, new-business pitches and the like, I’ve had more than enough opportunities for the nerves to set in.

The crazy part is, I’m almost always confident enough and well-prepared for these sorts of events. It’s some sort of subconscious, physical reaction. The last time this occurred, during a strategy presentation for a client, I took some time to reflect in the moment on what seemed to be fueling the mild anxiety (and it is, almost always, very mild) — and what I can do about it.

Generally, I experience two kinds of anxiousness: before the event and during the event. I don’t always have both, and sometimes I have neither. And there are a few things that can take the edge off.

“Before” Nerves

Caused by thing like:

  • Will I get there on time?
  • Is my fly down?
  • Will a child / coffee cup / mud puddle suddenly vomit / spill / splash on me before I get there?
  • Will my voice work when I open my mouth? It tends to be reliable, but you never know.
  • What if the presentation evaporates from my hard drive and my USB drive and my inbox and my Dropbox?
  • What if the client, who’s in the same time zone as me, scheduled the meeting for Eastern Time instead of Central?

What can I do about it?

This stuff is, almost exclusively, pure lunacy. I’m an intelligent, confident person, and I know enough about technology to know that my PDF won’t evaporate. The stuff that’s not crazy — like the possibility of a child vomiting on me or wiping his nose on me or suffering a coffee attack — is much more in my control and solvable with a back-up shirt if I’m really worried. Generally, this sort of anxiety — at least for me — is either easily dismissed (though sometimes it’s recurring, more than I’d like) or serves an important purpose: keeping me on edge just enough to make sure I have my act together. I try to embrace it.

“During” Nerves

Caused by thing like:

  • Am I crazy or do they seem uninterested?
  • Is my voice working?
  • Is my fly down?
  • Am I talking about slide 8 while displaying slide 7?
  • How bored are these people?
  • Am I crazy or do they seem uninterested?

What can I do about it?

Lots of problems, with one solution: Know your shit. Know your audience, what they’re interested in, what they want to get out of listening to you, what they might find funny (humor, after knowing one’s shit, is about the most powerful tool in the public speaker’s shed). Know your material, what you want to convey, how your presentation should flow, what questions you might be asked. Know how the presentation should start and where you want it to end.

That, and know that the nerves are just keeping you on your toes. You’ll be fine.