In the first part of this two-part discussion on how to deal with presentation anxiety, I discussed some strategies you can employ in the weeks before presenting, things that you can work on to reduce your presentation anxiety even if you don’t have an upcoming speech. In this part, we’ll look at what you can do to reduce your anxiety in the minutes right before the presentation and during the presentation itself.
Right before your presentation begins, one of the best strategies for putting the brakes on your fight-or-flight response is to take deep breaths. This elicits the relaxation response discovered by Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. Harvard Medical school suggests using these two steps to learn deep breathing. The first step should be done at home to learn the practice, and the second can be used in the minutes leading up to your presentation and during the presentation itself.
- Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. First, take a normal breath. Then try a deep breath: Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural).
- Once you’ve taken the steps above, you can move on to regular practice of controlled breathing. As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, blend deep breathing with helpful imagery and perhaps a focus word or phrase that helps you relax.
As mentioned in step 2 above, you might take a moment or two before your presentation, whether it’s in your car, a deserted room, or an empty bathroom to call to mind imagery that relaxes you. It could be the smiling face of someone you love or a place where you are completely comfortable or a word that brings you comfort. I do this before every presentation I give. I take a moment to picture the faces of my daughters. That quick imagery helps me to put into focus what and who really matters and to give perspective to the speaking situation in the grand scheme of my life.
Observe Your Surroundings
This technique helps us name our experiences for what they are. It’s an internal monologue that might sound something like this, “I’m walking into the room where I’ll be presenting. The room is carpeted. My heart rate is speeding up because I’m drawing closer to the time of the presentation. I’m thirsty. My hands are shaking. The room is cold. I feel out of breath because I’m nervous. I like the blue color of these walls. I see some people smiling at me.” In noticing your surroundings and objectifying some of what is happening to you, you can help to minimize some if it’s power and control.
You might find it comforting to know that even as you are giving the presentation, you are working to lessen your anxiety. This is a method called exposure therapy. The more often you speak and survive, the less violent your fight or flight response will be when those situations arise again. Your brain says, “Oh, I’ve been here before, and I walked away just fine.” Each exposure works to reduce the severity of the phobia response. According to a 2011 Physicatric Times article, 90% of patients who participated in exposure therapy studies said that their anxiety was reduced, and 65% no longer reported a phobia at all. In other words, this strategy works. It really, really works.
Try to use one or more of these strategies the next time you are faced with presentation anxiety. You might find that even knowing there are tools you can use to cope with your nervous feelings do a great deal to reduce those feelings. Above all and as I mentioned at the conclusion of the last post, don’t let nervousness dictate your thoughts and your actions; don’t let presentation anxiety silence you.
For more information on strategies to cope with presentation anxiety and proven theories to make you a more effective communicator, check out our online presentation skills course.