In the first part of Overcome Presentation Fears we explored three strategies to use. You can read about them in detail by clicking or tapping here but in summary they were:

The audience is on your side
Know your material / know its contents
Practise in front of an audience

The next three that I’m going to explore are:
4. Remember to breathe!
5. Never do these things
6. Focus on the audience and not yourself

The remaining three will be in the next post: How to Overcome Presentation Fears – Part Three. Back to today’s post; let’s continue:

4. Remember to breathe!

Few, if anyone, would doubt the merits of breathing! However, if we’re nervous our breathing can fail to get enough oxygen into our bodies and just as importantly enough carbon dioxide out of our bodies. If you’ve experienced hyperventilation before then you will understand what I mean.

A simple technique to practise in the moments before you go on stage or when you find yourself feeling nervous and your breathing is becoming erratic is to do the following:
Breathe in to a count of four and out to a count of seven or eight. The breathe out rate is deliberately longer than the breathe in rate.

This has the desired effect of not only expelling excess carbon dioxide but helping to calm our nerves. The breaths, whether out or in, should be taken in a slow, deep breath way.

Not only must you breathe!, but your presentation must breathe as well. There is no ‘hard and fast’ rule but experts generally believe that a pause every 7-9 words is a good strategy to adopt. Quite possibly, this will be at the end of every sentence or phrase. Insufficient presenters understand the difference between presentation and conversation. A pause that might seem like an age to someone you’re conversing with will seem natural to a room full of people. So, remember, you are not conversing with someone: you are presenting to someone. Pauses are vital to give your audience the time that they need to understand the points that we are making.

There are few more highly gifted in explaining the difference between conversation and presentation than Professor Max Atkinson in his book, Lend Me Your Ears. I highly recommend it. In it he says:

Things like hesitations, pace, volume and intonation combine in a style of delivery that makes such speakers come across as though they are merely ‘chatting’ their way through the presentation… But when you’re in front of an audience, speaking in conversation mode is unlikely to do much to help them with the problems of attentiveness and understanding discussed… (p 47 Lend Me Your Ears.)

I cannot underestimate the difference between conversation and presentation enough. Allow your presentation to breathe and give enough time for your meaning to reach all of your audience. This is essential if we are to stand the best chance of getting our meaning across as effectively as possible.

5. Never do these things

A list of ‘nevers’ can seem a strange thing to record. Further, isn’t it counter-intuitive to not tell the audience these things? Surely, that would put the audience on ‘our side’? Evidence supports the argument that keeping schtum is in fact the best policy to adopt. One such article advocating the general decision to not apologise can be read here.

Let’s explore those areas for where apology is unwise in more detail.

Never apologise for nerves!

Surely, it makes sense to apologise for feeling nervous? It’s a hard lesson to learn but you did choose to present didn’t you?! Since you decided to present to your audience, your audience expects a degree of self-assurance and will recognise your expertise in what you’re saying or doing (as long as you’re well prepared – see last time’s post). Yes, you might well feel nervous but apologising openly for it will make your audience nervous for you. It will stop them focusing on what you’re saying or doing and make them focus on you. That is not your intention but it will happen if you say so.

A similar scenario can occur, by the way, if you tell your audience why you’re doing something such as explaining why you’re showing a photo or justifying why you’re doing something. I’m not questioning the decision to use something; I’m questioning the decision of thinking that you need to justify that decision to use something. You don’t need to justify it: you are presenting and your audience would expect you to do whatever is necessary to make your presentation as good as it can be. If you justify it you can give the impression that you are apologising for it (apology has its root meaning in arguing and defending). To repeat: you don’t need to justify your decisions and if you do you will generate unnecessary anxiety in your audience.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t be nervous? Certainly not! Of course you might be nervous. Just don’t tell your audience that you are. After all, have you ever attended a First Night at a theatre performance and had every actor come on the stage and apologise for feeling nervous on their first occasion of performing this play or musical?! Then neither should you.

– Never apologise for what you thought was a mistake

This point is a little more contentious but I still argue that you shouldn’t apologise for mistakes; mistakes that you have made, that is. They might not have noticed!
– Never share your mistakes. Again, they might not have noticed! Technology will fail at some stage. And you can be sure that it will fail just when you need it to work! What was your back-up plan in the event of technology failure? You did have a back-up plan didn’t you?

In this instance it is acceptable to apologise; don’t dwell on the apology though. Apologise quickly, but sincerely, and then deliver the solution with confidence. Remember, fail to plan: plan to fail. Contingency plans are more important today in our ever-increasing reliance on technology.

So, should I apologise for things that were ‘mistakes’ such as ‘slips of the tongue’ or errors in your performance? No. Assuming you thoroughly planned your ‘mistakes’ will probably only be noticed by your No. 1 Critic: namely you. Research constantly reinforces the point that others don’t notice our mistakes; yet, we of course do. Apologising for those ‘mistakes’ will create anxiety in your audience and they might even start listening out for the next ‘mistake’ in the same vane that repeatedly ‘umm-ing and ahh-ing’ in presentations can cause the same response in your audience.

– Never be overly critical

We are our No. 1 Critic, as we were just saying. We notice and log in the failure column every error, miscalculation, mistake and flaw in our performance. We are very good at being our No. 1 Critic. Strange how we are seldom our No. 1 Fan! What would that be like if we were? It’s not that being critical (as in objectively analysing, not slaying and condemning) isn’t helpful. Rather, it’s seldom balanced by assessing the successes. Before you criticise yourself find two or three things that went well. Then, consider how you could make those ‘mistakes’ even better next time.

It’s easy to forget that your audience is only too delighted it’s you standing there and not them! Further, they’ve come to see you perform or present. Practise objective assessment of your performance. Here’s how:

Identify more successes (What Went Well’s) than opportunities for improvements next time (Even Better If’s). Celebrate the successes; commit to the opportunities for improvement. And finish with giving yourself a ‘pat on the back’.

6. Focus on the audience and not yourself

The presentation is not about you. That is a hard lesson for some of us to learn. You are performing for the audience; they have come to see you. Amazingly, when we make what psychologists call reframing, the emphasis is shifted from ourselves and to someone else. It’s as if the pressure has been lifted off our shoulders. Taking the pressure off ourselves and focusing on our audience simply helps us feel less stressful and nervous.

Looking up(wards) is a highly effective technique to relieve anxiety. And, by the way, this also relieves sadness as well. It’s no wonder that the phase “Looking down” means feeling sad. We literally look downwards to the ground. This triggers a chain reaction in our bodies and the sadness gets reinforced. Looking up does the reverse. It triggers a more positive mindset and it actually becomes increasingly more difficult to feel sad. Or feel nervous.

So, look up at your audience, remember that they are there because they want to see and hear you perform and you will feel the nerves easing and your confidence rising.

Some of you might not believe me though. If that’s you I want to encourage you to contact me for a free and informal 15-minute chat. You might only need a coaching session or two after that and your confidence in presenting in front of an audience will be changed for the better.

Do let me know in the comments section below if you practise some of these techniques and you notice a positive difference in your performance.

Until next time, when we’ll explore the last three techniques in how to overcome presentation fears.