How to Deal with Nerves Before a Presentation

Stop telling yourself to calm down.

Posted Feb 26, 2019

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There are a lot of situations that produce anxiety, but giving a presentation is quite possibly the most nerve-wracking of the professional workplace. it could be a presentation in a small meeting, or a pitch to the board, or an address to the whole company or a keynote speech at a conference. Whatever it is, standing in front of others and hoping you don’t forget your lines…or say them wrong…is a recipe for a high level of anxiety. 

I get asked about nerves often because, well, most of my job is giving speeches. So, inevitably while I’m waiting backstage someone will ask, “Are you nervous? Do you still get nervous?” Or some variation of that question. And I reply the exact same thing every time.

I say no: I’m excited.

It’s not boastful; it’s actually me trying to hack my own psychology. Sure I get butterflies in my stomach, but I learned how to reframe them. A recent study by Alison Woods Burns of the Harvard Business School that looked at anxiety-producing situations and the best strategies to deal with them. Burns divided study participants into two groups and then exposed them to an anxiety-producing situation. She used a range of different situations, from singing karaoke to giving a presentation. 

To the first group, she asked them to repeat the affirmation “I am calm” to try and soothe the participants' anxiety. She gave an affirmation to the second group, but it was very different: I am excited.

When she checked in after the fact, the “I am excited” group dramatically outperformed the “I am calm” group. They appeared to have a better experience. They actually felt like some of their anxiety lifted. And they gave a better presentation or sung better karaoke. 

The theory behind why this works is that when you’re nervous, you feel a certain way. There are butterflies in your stomach. There’s a little shake to your hands. And if you try and calm yourself or lie to yourself and say you are calm, it's obvious that the affirmation doesn’t match your feelings. But nervousness and excitement feel very similar: Same butterflies. Same shake. Just a different way of understanding what your body is feeling. So you can re-frame the same sensation not as anxiety but as excitement. Excitement to get your message out into the world.

To push it even further, let’s be frank: If you knew you were going to give a terrible presentation then you wouldn’t be feeling nervousness, anyway. You’d be feeling dread. So the fact that you’re feeling nervousness means that there is a potential positive outcome. And that positive outcome is what you should focus on. 

You’re not nervous that you won’t get that positive outcome, you’re excited because you can.