7 Ways to Calm Nerves When Presenting – Professional Performers’ Tricks.

Calming Nerves and Presentation Anxiety

I was speaking at an industry award ceremony a few years ago, and got chatting to the awards host. She’s not a performer, but she’s a well-known writer and occasionally TV presenter. She’s intelligent, respected and (seemingly) confident.
It was about two hours before the awards and I couldn’t help noticing how agitated she was. She was pacing up and down. Her breathing was shallow. Her voice was tight and tinny, and she kept repeating the same movements over and over again.
I asked her what was on her mind. ‘I’m so nervous!’ she said. ‘I feel sick. I really do. This is the fourth awards ceremony I’ve done this year, and I hate it. I hate feeling like this. I just hope that I can get through this.’
We chatted for a bit longer, and then I sensed that she needed time alone, so I wished her the best of luck for the evening and went to talk to other attendees. Although I wasn’t speaking in the evening, I decided to stay and watch the awards.

The host was announced, and I almost didn’t recognise the person I’d been speaking to earlier. She looked confident and in full possession of the stage. She was witty, charming and not only got through the awards, but made the night a huge success. She looked comfortable and confident and the client was delighted. We stayed in touch, and I asked her what she’d done to calm her nerves. ‘Oh’, she said ‘I didn’t calm them, I stopped fighting them’.

What professional performers do.

Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by how professional presenters and performers deal with nerves and I’ve asked lots of them how they do it. As a performer myself, I have my own way of handling nerves, and I noticed that there are some common themes in the answers. I’ve summed seven of them up for you here. When I’m coaching clients, I use these ideas a lot, and they always seem to help. I hope that they help you in your presenting:
  1. Arrive early. This isn’t a rocket-science tip, but it helps so often. No one ever benefited by rushing into a presentation at the last minute. Arriving early helps you to get a sense of the room, check the PowerPoint and maybe even practise your first few lines. Any stress will make nerves worse, so don’t add to it by being in a rush. If I have to present for clients, I’ll often arrive in the area of their office early, and then just go to a cafe for a while to calm down. There are few feelings worse than being nervous, late and lost!
  2. Name the nerves. Give yourself a minute or two to name what’s happening to your body as precisely as possible. So, instead of thinking ‘I’m nervous’, say ‘That’s interesting, my heart is beating really hard and my throat feels dry’. Or ‘That’s fascinating, my hands are feeling clammy and I’ve got butterflies in my stomach.’. Don’t ask me why it works (I’m sure there’s a PhD in studying it!) but it does. Naming the sensations you’re experiencing just seems to take the power out of them.
  3. Breathe. It’s not as simple as it sounds. One of the most common signs of nerves is shallow breathing. Shallow breathing makes you sound tense. It raises the pitch of your voice, making you sound less authoritative. It makes presenting effortful, and can make your audience feel uncomfortable on your behalf. Take a few moments before your presentation to let your breathing return to normal. I always hum gently about two minutes before presenting. Humming helps my breathing return to normal, and adds a quality of resonance to my voice.
  4. Create a mini-ritual. This was a common answer from all of the professional performers that I spoke to. Every one of them had a little ritual that they performed in the minutes leading up to their show. This is useful for business presenters too. Some performers have a short phrase that they repeat to warm up their voice. Some jump up and down on the spot to give them energy. Some have a ‘lucky mascot’ in their pocket. It’s not the ritual itself that’s important – it’s the sense of stability and safety that comes from having a routine. The other benefit is that a mini-ritual tells your brain to get ready to present, you need to be a bit more ‘awake’. The mini-ritual that I use is to do a ‘warm-up’. Shake your arms out, and practise saying a couple of phrases from your presentation out loud. I always say the first line of my presentation out loud just before I’m about to start – then I know I’m ready to go!
  5. Remember that you’re not performing, you’re communicating a message. You’re not a performer, and no one is expecting you to get up on stilts, talk in a funny accent, or wear theatrical clothes (unless that’s your thing. And if it is, let me know because I’d love to come and see your next presentation). The only thing that the audience cares about is your message and whether it’s right for them. Focus on getting your message across to the audience, rather than focusing on yourself.
  6. Learn the beginning and end of your presentation.  If you’re rock-solid on what you’re going to say in the first and last minute of your presentation, you’ll feel much more confident. I don’t recommend learning an entire presentation verbatim, but taking the time to get the beginning and ending right helps you look and feel more confident.
  7. Be kind to yourself. Last in this list, but not least. Everybody who’s ever stood up and presented has felt nervous. Every. Single. Person. In fact, most professional performers said that if they weren’t nervous, they would think that something was wrong. Nerves are a natural and healthy response to a stressful situation. It’s not normal to stand up in front of people and have the spotlight on you. The sensation we call ‘nerves’ is simply your body’s way of preparing you for flight or fight. Tell yourself ‘I’m nervous. That’s fine, in fact it’s more than fine, it means that my body is working in a healthy and natural way.’ And remember – the presentation is important to you, but your audience aren’t paying nearly as much attention to it as you are. In the long-term, it will all be alright!
Do try these techniques in your next presentation, and let me know how you get on – leave me a comment below, or send an email.