The Fear Factor

A recurring theme in my presentation training and executive coaching engagements is dealing with stage fright, the jitters, nervousness or the overall fear of public speaking. Presentation Anxiety (PA) – the clinical term for it – is a perfectly normal human response. But, don’t think you have to overcome it and become more confident and comfortable when presenting. Just appear that way. With the audience, perception is reality.

The outcomes of this article will be to share concepts, strategies and techniques to help you minimize the real causes of your PA and its symptoms and mask what’s left. So, let’s start by discussing why people experience PA in the first place.

Fight or Flight

Presentation Anxiety isn’t a singular feeling, but a set of feelings that vary by individual and situation. A fundamental human response to a stressor is the ‘fight or flight’ tendency we inherited from our primitive ancestors. When they faced a hungry animal or enemy, their adrenal glands kicked into overdrive to provide extra doses of energy to either fight or flee. Since speaking in front of people is a stressor for most people, the same thing happens. But, we usually can’t run away or beat up the audience. Unfortunately, our adrenal glands don’t know the difference and we still get overdosed on power juice. That causes some physiological and psychological symptoms that we project to the audience.

Ask 100 people to carefully analyze why they don’t like speaking in public and you’ll get a lot of different answers. For the sake of our discussion, let’s group the reasons for PA into three broad categories.

Fear of Failure

Many people stress out over delivering a presentation because of fear of failure or, at least, not doing very well. This feeling may be driven by concern over forgetting content or making mistakes. Any of these drivers can increase the level of PA as the importance of the presentation or the ‘cost of failure’ increase. That big-ticket sales pitch or important presentation for the big bosses can really make presenters crazy.

Fear of Looking Dumb

Some presenters agonize over looking dumb to the audience because they don’t really know their content or aren’t experts. They don’t feel prepared or didn’t have – or take – the time to get there. Others worry about making a bad or weak impression on the audience, but don’t know how to avoid it. This fear is heightened during the audience question section, especially if the topic is controversial or the audience has some argumentative or aggressive members. No one likes to look dumb in front of the big dogs, especially those inflicted with an unreasonably high level of self-defeating perfectionism.

Fear of the Spotlight

Many introverted people don’t enjoy communicating in general and especially being in the spotlight on the platform. Being out of their comfort zone really stresses them out. And on top of these often paralyzing fears, many people don’t like how they look – a typical human condition. They think they’re too short or too tall, too thin or too heavy, too young or too old, too much hair or not enough. Putting them on the platform only intensifies this low physical self-esteem, especially in a large audience setting with image magnification on large screens. Now that’s really creepy.

As discussed, PA isn’t a singular psychological phenomenon, but a variety of specific causes that impact presenters in different ways. And different presentation circumstances can create different levels of PA in the same presenter. Next are some simple strategies to minimize the specific causes of your own Presentation Fear Factor and techniques to mask the remaining symptoms.

Minimize Causes

Most causes relate to preparation – or lack thereof: fear of not knowing your material, not being an expert, not being prepared, not making a good impression on your audience or your bosses, not handling audience questions very well, etc. The obvious strategy to minimize these drivers is … Prepare!

  • Do your homework. Remember that failing to plan is planning to fail. So, commit the time and effort to properly prepare your audience-centric presentation.
  • Part of your audience analysis process is anticipating their needs, reactions and potential questions. Be prepared to deal with their reactions and respond to their questions with succinct and focused answers … just in case.
  • Also accept the fundamental difference between being an expert and having expertise. You don’t need to be an expert, just have more expertise on the topic than the audience does so you can accomplish your outcomes. An old Sicilian proverb comes to mind here – ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’
  • Another critical strategy to minimize PA is practice – rehearse your presentation several times, out loud, standing up, working with your slides. Audio or video tape it for self-critique. For really important presentations, rehearse with a small audience of colleagues who can relate to the topic and provide focused, objective constructive feedback.
  • If your PA level is high because you’re shy or self-conscious about your appearance, remind yourself that they probably didn’t hire you for your personality or looks. You’re really not the center of attention – your message and audience are. Shy, introverted people can be very effective audience-centric presenters. They just need more effort and practice.

Mask Symptoms

Once you’ve minimized your specific causes as much as you can, learn to mask what’s left. The audience can’t see the butterflies in your stomach or the sweat on your palms. They only know what they see and hear. So, let them see and hear what they assume is a credible, confident and competent presenter. Their perception is truly your reality.

  • Never say you’re nervous, uncomfortable or unprepared – make them figure that out for themselves. And most won’t.
  • Smile more – it projects confidence.
  • Look like you’re having fun.
  • Increase your volume and inflection to sound more authoritative and confident.
  • Minimize nervous-looking gestures and movement.
  • Maintain sustained eye contact with all parts of the room.
  • Project enthusiasm and passion for your topic with your words and actions. Fake it if you need to. (If you need some help in faking it, watch the deli scene from the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally’ several times.)

So, there you go. Proven strategies to minimize your specific causes of Presentation Anxiety and techniques to mask what’s left. Keep telling yourself that you don’t actually need to become confident and comfortable on the platform, just look and sound like it. Presenters on the Varsity Team have learned how to do that. So can you.

One Comment

  1. Debbie
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    A lot of good information. I hear this alot at my Toastmaster meetings. We all joined for the same reason and help each other overcome Presentation Anxiety. It is funny, that while reading this article, I found myself feeling the anxiety described and had to take a few deep yoga breaths to relax myself before I could continue because I do relate to the information.

    Phil, thank you for helping us become better communicators.