What to do if you are nervous when presenting

Photo: Borut Peterlin / Mladina

The quick answer: tell the audience!

An actor once told me that it’s only one thing that’s worse than being nervous on stage. And that’s sitting in the audience watching a nervous person on the stage. Knowing that sounds scary. But it’s not. It means that the audience want you to feel fine. They feel sorry for you and want to do everything they can to help you.

So, I want to add something to that last part. The thing that’s worse than being nervous on stage is sitting in the audience watching a person that tries to hide the fact that he or she is nervous. It’s the hiding and pretending that’s bad for the audience. Be honest. Be yourself.

Through the last 10 years I’ve done a lot of presentations. Experience will make you less nervous. But from time to time you’ll encounter a situation where you feel nervous. You’re experienced, but this is the first time you speak to 2500 people. This is the first time you present in another language than your own. This is the first time you present for a small room filled with 10 important executives. The stage felt bad and the lights hit you right in the face. And so on.

First of all, you should know that the audience won’t see it if you’re slightly nervous. I’ve had presentations where I felt uncomfortable, but judging the response the audience didn’t notice anything.

Then, if you suddenly start feeling really nervous. Struggeling to find your words. Getting too hot. Feeling really uncomfortable. Then simply tell the audience.

“Wow, you’re a highly competent audience and suddely I started feeling nervous.”

You won’t believe how much tension that removes. Both from you and from the audience. And if you manage to be even slightly funny when stating that you’re nervous it will work even better.

“I’m sorry. I’ve gone thorugh this presentation a hundred times at home, but unfortunately I don’t have a huge stage with 2000 kilowatts of light in my living room. This made me more nervous than I expected.”

Some more presentation advice from earlier articles:

Essential equipment for your presentation

Two essential tricks in powerpoint

How to make illustrations even if you can’t draw

How to avoid making boring presentations

Happy presenting! And as always, I have to recommend presentationzen for more on this topic.

What to do if you are nervous when presenting

4 thoughts on “What to do if you are nervous when presenting

  1. I think it’s good advice to let the audience know how you feel. After all, it’s usually better to talk about the elefant in the room than ignore it.

    However, sometimes acting as if you’re not nervous will also help. I think much of the same applies if you are scared of something or shy when meeting (or talking to) new people. If you act as if yuo’re not nervous/scared/shy, people won’t know that you are.

    Also, this post made me think of two great books on people-skills and public speaking:

    How to Develop Self-Confidence And Influence People By Public Speaking and
    How to Win Friends & Influence People, both by Dale Carnegie.

  2. Good points here and reminds me of the old saw “what you need for success in business is a reputation for honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that you’ve got it made…”

    I’ve also presented lots and have two main tricks to keep down the nerves. Breathing deep and a little visualisation – I picture myself riding into the meeting or stage on a big black horse. Really helps the confidence!

    Oh and preparation helps too.

    I got a great tip I’ve used a couple of times. When you know there’s a difficult expert in the audience who might give you some grief. Try really hard to meet them before you go on and say “hi, I might get some questions from the audience that are hard to answer, you have the expertise, can I refer the question over to you? I’d really appreciate it.” You stroke their ego and should have a friend.

  3. Good advice. At some point I need to follow up this post with one about how to avoid getting nervous in the first place…

    Prepare, prepare and prepare. Comfortable and suitable clothes. Eat something. Avoid sparkling water.

    And prepare even more on your first slides. Get the audience in the beginning and bob’s your uncle.

    Hmmm. Maybe I should start to prepare for the two presentations I have tomorrow?

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