The 3 Main Reasons We Get Nervous when Presenting

Overcoming Presentation Challenges Part 1 (of 3): Presentation Jitters

(click below to view the video or read on if you’d prefer!)

In this article, I am turning my attention to presentations. Presentations have become part and parcel of corporate life, especially in larger organisations and I have noticed that, while a lot of time and money is invested in training folks so that they both write and deliver good presentations, not all of this training actually pays off when I think of all the challenges I hear about when it comes to presentations. So I thought I’d spend some time looking at presentations, starting with the fact that most of us experience a fair bit of anxiety when it comes to presenting. In follow-up articles, I will share with you what I consider to be core techniques to confidently deliver your presentation as well as tell you about a simple approach to design a powerful presentation guaranteed to have impact.

Today, let’s focus on presentation jitters. For some, it will mean an accelerated heartbeat, for others, their mouth will get dry. Or it could be sweat. Or just a sense of pressure in the pit of your stomach. Whatever form your case of nerves takes, it can happen both before and during the presentation. Some people get uncomfortable at the very thought of presenting and this leads them to procrastinate with respect to writing up the slides. Other folks get nervous only when delivering.

So what’s going on? Three things could be happening to you. And sometimes two or all three may be going on at the same time. But let’s look at them in turn so that we demystify the fear of presenting.

1.    The first fear: the concerned caveman – or woman

When we experience the first type of fear, we become again a “concerned caveman – or cavewoman” because this anxiety harks back to our days in the caves. At that time of our evolution, our brain’s function was focused on protecting us from threats and notably on enabling us to decide very quickly whether to choose fight or flight. Avoiding threats more often than not meant a group approach to challenges: you know the saying “safety lies in numbers”. For that reason, most of us are programmed to want to get along and stay part of the group. We fear being kicked out. And what might get you kicked out? Standing out in some way, saying something offensive or stupid, or simply not performing up to expectations.

Fast forward to now. You’re standing in front of a group ready to speak and your brain goes (metaphorically): “Oh-oh. This is a threatening situation. If you say something stupid, YOU MIGHT…. DIE!” It’s not true of course, but that part of your brain doesn’t know that.

So what does this mean? This means that times have changed and that there is more to our XXIth century life than fight or flight. This is why our brains have expanded so much and new functions, such as analysis, become the hallmark of the human race. But our “old brain” still serves a purpose: it is this part which allows us to swerve quickly and avoid a car crash.

This fear is part and parcel of our humanity. It is meant to preserve us and indeed it ensured our species thrived. So let’s both accept it and thank it. But let’s also recognise when it manifests in circumstances for which it is less relevant. I will discuss presentation delivery techniques and how to manage your nerves in a next instalment but for now, I hope that understanding where your jitters come from is a first step in managing them better.

2.    The second fear: the emotional worrier

Another source of presentation jitters is your memories, whether you are aware of them or not. Bad memories turn you into what I have a labelled an “emotional worrier”. What happens, for instance, is that you had an experience at school where you were humiliated in front of your classmates and felt a strongly negative emotion as a result. Many years later that memory and its emotional content resurface – though you may not be immediately conscious of either – and literally haunt you: you experience all over again that strong negative emotion and, from that discomfort, come anxiety and avoidance.

Whereas the caveman’s fear of presentations will manifest at the time of delivery, this form of presentation anxiety will block action at a much earlier stage and people experiencing this type of presentation nerves struggle to even write the presentation.

So what does this mean? The key here is to connect to the old memory which is the trigger point and revisit it in order to “de-awfulise” it. The past is just that: past. It is up to us: we can to leave our past where it belongs – and there are many techniques to let go of an unhelpful past – or we can let our present be burdened by the weight of obstructive memories. If this is your fear, what choice are you making?

3.    The third fear: the demanding brain

A third aspect of presentation jitters is the pressure we place on ourselves to do well. This will take the form of a highly talkative brain which says things like:

  • “my presentation must be perfect”
  • “I must be interesting and engaging”
  • “I mustn’t leave anything out”
  • “I mustn’t show I’m nervous”
  • “I’ve got to be able to answer every question”

I call this fear “the demanding brain” because these thoughts are effectively demands you are placing on yourself and they can make you nervous because the fact is that you cannot guarantee that any of these demands will be met. Like the previous form, this third form of presentation anxiety will prevent people from both writing their presentation – because they are concerned it might not be perfect, not comprehensive enough – as well as from delivering it well. Indeed, these thoughts swirling in your mind consume a lot of brainpower and distract you from your actual goal.

So what does this mean? Well, get hold of the thoughts which circle round your brain: pin them down and examine them critically. To reduce their destructive power, rationally analyse the truth and usefulness of these demands. And revise them to use more helpful statements which will encourage action as well as calm your nerves. For example, instead of “my presentation must be perfect”, how about: “I would like to deliver an informative presentation but I accept that I may not be able to cover everything which my audience may be curious to hear about. If that’s the case, I will address any issue during the Q&A.”

In summary, the reasons why we may come to dread presentations are:

(1) our caveman’s fear of being kicked out of the protective embrace of the group,

(2) our memories of unhappy situations and

(3) the unrealistic demands we place on ourselves.

Recognising what is going on for us is the first step on the road to taking the appropriate remedial measure and managing our nerves.

I’d love to hear what you thought of my typology of presentation jitters. Did you recognise the kind of anxiety which sometimes bothers you? And what do you do to manage your presentation nerves?

Do not hesitate to email me and share your presentation challenges: just click here.

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