Hot Take: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Presentation Anxiety

Hot Take: A Step-by-Step Guide to Overcoming Presentation Anxiety

Death. Heights. Spiders. Until recently, these were some of Americans’ most common fears. (Now our fears are much more grim.) And right up there with snakes and enclosed spaces was public speaking—an obvious outlier, but one that’s awfully relatable to a lot of people, including our clients.

Often, companies who need to create thought leadership content come to us with anxieties about being the face of their brand. If people buy from people, then customers need to know who’s behind the brand, especially if the founder is an integral part of the product or service story. So, how do you overcome your very real public speaking anxiety to create and present content?

Public Speaking Stress Tips

I was an introverted child who turned into a much-less-introverted adult that worked as a small group facilitator and conflict resolution communicator. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, so while I understand presentation anxiety intimately, I also love public speaking. (Yes, I said “love.”)

In my many years as a marketing and graphic design professional with a bachelor’s degree in public speaking, I’ve done countless presentations. I’ve also tutored students in voice and diction. So, when clients have concerns about being the mouthpiece of their brand, I’m happy to share tips for before, during and after a speaking engagement.

Before: how to prepare yourself

Prepare your work or documentation. Confidence is critical when it comes to thought leadership. Sadly, people will always believe a well-postured and articulate person over a sweaty, shy stutterer. And, as tennis legend Arthur Ashe said, “An important key to self-confidence is preparation.” Be sure to re-read your script or meeting agenda or goals. I also recommend knowing more than you need to know. When you have more skills or knowledge than you share, you will naturally have more confidence.

Practice mindfulness and stress-relief exercises. Presentations can present both mental and physical stress. Although it sounds simple, doing short mindfulness exercises prior to stepping up to the podium is a game-changer. I recommend you avoid doing any physical activities because sometimes the adrenaline you generate can make things worse. Instead, I suggest:

  • Do vocal warm-ups. Stretch out your vowel sounds (a, e, i, o and u) from low to high registers to loosen up your voice. My other favorite exercise is to repeat each consonant sound as plosively as you can three times. Make sure your throat is open!
  • Tense up and release the energy. Start at the top of your head and work your way down, trying to tense up each muscle or area on your body one by one. Once you get to your toes and everything is tense altogether, release.

During: how to respond to questions and comments

Whether you need to prepare an in-person presentation or an online seminar, you’ll likely need to be ready to take questions. For many people, this is where most of the presentation anxiety bubbles up. If you can memorize your lines or notes, that’s great. But what if someone asks a question to which you hadn’t prepared a curated response? 

First of all, I want to address the advice we’ve all heard to “imagine the audience in their underwear” to alleviate anxiety. I can’t stress this enough: don’t do that. Not only do you lose focus, but you also risk making it hard to maintain eye contact. (Ever tried to stare at a stranger in their skivvies without laughing or turning red? I haven’t, but I imagine it’s hard.) Furthermore, I find this tactic to be counterintuitive. Your goal should be to build confidence by making yourself feel powerful, not by making the audience feel powerless. The way to build confidence in the moment when someone poses a question is three-pronged:

If you know the answer, pause and breathe. People don’t ask other people questions because they don’t trust them to have the answer. Always remember that. You’re in this situation because you are the expert. Don’t be afraid to take a breath and a second or two to gather your thoughts. It doesn’t make you look lost—it makes you look thoughtful.

If you don't know the answer but someone else does, pass the mic. You don’t have to know everything. What you don’t know someone else does. If someone asks a question you can’t answer immediately, let them know where they can go for answers. Being an expert doesn’t mean you have every answer; sometimes it means you know where the answer can be found.

If you don't know the answer and no one else does, promise a follow-up. Maybe you don’t know the answer right away and you don’t even know where to find the answer. That’s okay too! Explain why the answer isn’t as straightforward as one may think, or share how you would go about discovering an answer. This brings us to the third and final point…

After: how to wrap it up

When a presentation or a meeting is over, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that all is well and done, but the process shouldn’t end there. A true thought leader isn’t only an educator; they’re a student and a partner. The best way to maximize a presentation and to make them feel less daunting is to see them as two-way relationships rather than as one-way power trips. Here are some simple ways to wrap up various types of presentations:

After a meeting, solicit feedback from the team. Leaders learn from their followers and collaborators. There’s nothing wrong with getting feedback from the team. It doesn’t have to be formal; you can talk to people one on one to see what they think you can do to improve. Plus, the more you get to know and ingratiate yourself to your audience, the less stressful presentations will be.

After public speaking, send a survey to the audience. When and where possible, survey your audience to see what they appreciated about your presentation and what they were left wanting more of. Not only does this make the audience feel less like a passive object and more like an active participant in the process, but it also gives you solid advice on how to do better the next time—a crucial part in reducing performance anxiety.

After a networking event, follow up with contacts. In my experience, people are generally good at telling you what they liked about your presentation or interaction. There are a lot of reasons why follow-up emails are important. At the very least, you can learn from them what was memorable and implement those notes in future presentations.

Cody H. Owens,
Content Director

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