Help me be okay with looking like a dork.
April 26, 2012 4:07 PM   Subscribe

I would like some help being okay with being nervous, being clearly nervous, during presentations.

Basically, I'm working hard to get better at this, but it is still clear to the audience I'm nervous. I feel it makes them think less of me, that I'm incompetent, and are embarrassed for me. Can you help me get past this? This is in a professional capacity. I understand that I have to practice to get better, but for a while, this is going to just be the way things are.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, it feels shitty when you're visibly rattled. But I'll bet a lot of the audience is actually thinking "Holy crap, Anonymous has some serious balls." If you're consistently getting up there and doing something that obviously terrifies you, that's actually pretty damn impressive.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:14 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not so much practice speaking in front of audiences as it is being practiced giving your presentation. Make sure you've run yourself though it so many times that you could do it while sleep walking. Any time you're a performer, if you've got the performance down cold, you can power through it, even if you're absolutely terrified. You just get tunnel vision and do one thing after another until you're at the end.

They aren't there to judge you, they are there to hear what you have to say. Maybe even make a joke about being nervous, and then just be okay with being nervous. Most of them would be nervous if your positions were switched.
posted by empath at 4:16 PM on April 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

If you can do this, try to channel your nervous energy so that it reads as excitement or enthusiasm. It's really helpful, because the more nervous you are the more your audience thinks you looove your topic.
posted by forza at 4:17 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Err, this is a fairly large domain so I am certain that I will be skipping some significant points. Anyway, these are the things which helped me (note: when I am nervous I kinda go berserk, rather than withdrawing):

1) develop a neutral stance. You can find resources online talking about this. Whenever you're not gesturing, neutral stance. It's reassuring to have a "home position". It is crucial that your home position be neutral, rather than expressive.

2) when you are standing before an audience, look at their foreheads rather than their eyes. In any kind of large room they won't know the difference, but it can be remarkably easier to deal with.

3) never read from your slides, if you have slides. You may be surprised how much this helps.

4) as noted above, practice practice practice. The key here is to know the material backwards and forwards, so that you can extemporize. You're not following a script, you're choosing paths through the material.

Let me re-emphasize that last point: you are NOT following a particular presentation script but rather negotiating a path through the material based on your sense of the audience. This can make a huge difference, because suddenly it doesn't fucking matter that I forgot to mention the rate of urbanization in China, I've got another point I brought up that's better.

Warning: all of the above is based on my personal tendency to consume mass quantities of data.
posted by aramaic at 4:21 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I get like this every quarter when I am meant to be the grown up and professional chair at our board meetings, and for serious you guys I am so not grown up and professional. Every other word out of my mouth is swears and I stammer and glare and blush and flail and it is fucking AGONIZING.

So far the only solution I have found is to know every last fiddly detail about every last thing I am talking about such that my audience is in terrified awe of my unholy competence despite my helplessly derpy delivery. It helps when people ask me questions in a somewhat interrogationy fashion because I can just react with facts and not get too caught up in my presentation.

Also I have come to terms with the fact that people may view me as some kind of super awkward savant or something. It helps that the big boss at my office, who is notoriously difficult to please, always compliments me on the extensive breadth of my knowledge at these meetings.
posted by elizardbits at 4:27 PM on April 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I kind of cheat at this and talk to a few of the audience members beforehand, and tell them that, oh, god, I'm so nervous, I hate this sort of thing. Almost everyone hates public speaking, and admitting it is pretty endearing. It guarantees that you'll have one person in the audience who's nodding encouragingly at you, which helps.

The worst part for me is finishing and having to answer questions, because who knows what people might ask, so I'll also plant questions while talking to that audience member: "I'm so excited to tell people about this; I just wish I had more time to talk about x aspect. Hey! Would you mind asking a question about that?"

Something that helps me is to remember that usually, no one will remember this tomorrow. Seriously, most presentations are forgettable. It's okay, until you're more comfortable, to aim for forgettable. The only time I've had people remember a presentation of mine is when I literally passed out on stage. So, don't do that.
posted by punchtothehead at 4:29 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

when you are nervous, speaking slower and more clearly will always make you sound better. it kind of hypnotizes me a little too and ends up calming me too.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 4:33 PM on April 26, 2012

I suggest very strongly that you get many, many, many more opportunities to speak in front of people. MANY. This is the very best thing you can do. I cannot stress this hard enough. Practice on video or in your car is an OK alternative, but what you really need is to do lots of different presentations in front of lots of different audiences. You should try to find places to practice outside of work - church, clubs, whatever. You will see significant improvement for every 5 minutes you speak in front of groups - I am not kidding here at all.

Here are random articles and helpful things I've found for members of my Toastmasters group. Not all of them are TI-produced, but all have to do with either how you should compose yourself on stage, or how to address nervousness. All are free. If you want more info, let me know. I've linked to our club's website in my profile, and a search on the TI website for "fear" or "nervous" should turn up lots of good stuff.

OH: And you are NOT alone at being scared while you're up there. You have the sympathy of a majority of the audience, most of whom are glad they aren't you. Take heart.

And practice. Lots of practice. More than you think you can stand.
posted by SMPA at 4:49 PM on April 26, 2012 [194 favorites]

Once more -- practice the heck out of your presentation. I always give it at least 3 times through, no breaks, just moving along and saying what i have to say. This has a couple of effects:

1) I know exactly how long I am going to take, how fast I need to speak. This helps with fears of being too fast or slow.

2) When my mind goes blank (which it always does), my mouth keeps saying its lines until my brain remembers where it is.

3) I get a little bored with the presentation. Not enough to lose my edge, but enough to be familiar with all of it. This makes the whole thing less intimidating.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:50 PM on April 26, 2012

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. About ten minutes ago I finished giving two back-to-back presentations to what I'll describe as a "skeptical" audience. It went well because I'd already given the presentation three times last night to my childhood teddy bear, anticipating the expected questions - "We thought about that, Mr. Bear, and that's why we made sure that this feature is automatically turned off when that happens." So I wasn't just "giving a presentation," it was more like reciting a speech that I was already kind of sick of, but which I'd gotten very polished and knew like the back of my hand.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:50 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention, that this is performance art. It's not about you, or who you are: it's about the speech, an event. Try to separate the speech and even your behavior from your self-definition. These aren't your words, it's not your performance: you're an actor, or a puppet. It may help to say "I am Anonymous, in the role of Wicked Awesome Public Speaker" before going on stage. Or alternatively, you are Winston Churchill, or Steve Jobs, or whoever you admire in the world of public spoken performance.

The point is, don't make it personal, even when you are nervous. "It's not about me" can be very empowering.

(Oh: and you're allowed to be silent, quite a lot in fact, during your presentation. Sip some water, make gratuitous eye contact with the bridges of audience member noses, etc.)
posted by SMPA at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two things to remember that may make you feel better:

- Almost everyone gets nervous giving presentations, and most of the time it is noticeable. Even the people who are very good at presenting started out being very nervous. So they will not be judging you if they notice your nervousness - they will be thinking that you're trying hard and doing a good job.

- Most people aren't really paying that much attention during presentations. Their minds are wandering to other things. They probably won't even notice how nervous you are.

Good luck!
posted by barnoley at 5:19 PM on April 26, 2012

Here's what I used to tell nervous speakers when I was a conference organizer:

Everyone in that audience wants you to do well. They are your friends. They are pulling for you, and they want to hear what you have to say. (Even if you suspect or know this is not true, tell this to yourself)

It can help to have a friend in the audience that you can talk to while you are presenting. Just pretend you are talking to your friend (or friendly colleague), and no one else is in the room but you two. You can move your eyes over the audience so it doesn't look creepy, but come back to that friendly face in the crowd.

Also, don't be so convinced that your nervousness is obvious to your audience. The first time I spoke publicly, professionally (high school speech team doesn't count), I was cripplingly, heart-poundingly, cotton-mouthedly, knee-shakingly nervous. People came up to me afterwards and told me I had done well, and I was astounded they hadn't noticed. After that it got a whole lot easier.

Something else that helped: one time I was speaking to a large audience and I made a HUGE mistake. I misspoke in a way that was not complimentary to one of the event sponsors. After a horrifying dead-air moment when I realized what I'd said, I said "Oops!" and I laughed out loud. At myself, for saying something so stupid, for screwing up so badly.

The audience loved it. After that I had them in the palm of my hand.

It reminded me of something my high school speech coach told me once. "Never be afraid to make a fool of yourself. People will admire your courage."
posted by caryatid at 5:26 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about opening with something like "well, isn't this an awe-inspiring crowd? No really, I'm actually kinda scared now." Well... not exactly funny, but I could totally see someone owning "yes, I am nervous" in a humorous way that makes a connection, and breaks the ice. I think of Robert Reich's intro, "I know it's late so I'll be short."
posted by salvia at 6:14 PM on April 26, 2012

Craig Valentine won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking and is now a speaking coach. His blog has some valuable tips on how to give better presentations (you might find 5 rehearsal mistakes speakers make useful.
posted by mogget at 7:07 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Everyone in that audience wants you to do well."

Caryatid is so right. Audiences really do want the person/people up on the stage to do well. It's a weird dynamic, because in other situations many people will happily find fault with anything. But audiences are willing to overlook mistakes, and in fact they often miss them completely. They remember the good parts. They love when you can recover after a blunder. As a cynical introvert I often hate people, but as a former performer (ugh, that rhymes) I love audiences.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:28 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two things:

First, SMPA didn't say it though he implied it: Join Toastmasters! Because that's where you will get a weekly chance to get up and give prepared speeches and a chance to do the equivalent of presentational bungee-jumping - the infamous Table Topic - you are handed a slip of paper on which a question is written. You read it, stand up immediately and speak about the topic for one to two minutes. The best way to get involved with TM if you work in a business district is to join a lunch time group within walking distance. You get to escape from your office, enjoy fresh air and a quick walk.... and then practice this truly essential skill. Bring a tasty treat in your lunch as a special reward for confronting your fears.

Second, sad to say but a lot of advice about nervousness and public speaking is complete bullcrap. Of the six tips to combat stage fright given in the Stephen Boyd article for example, only one is really effective. The others are nice but they can't take the place of the truly essential one. That one, is, as SMPA said, *Practice*.

Why's that? Let's go over the neuroscience. What's happening when you stand up before a crowd is that you're facing an existential threat - fear of failure, fear of rejection. Someone once said it's even worse than that, it's evolutionary: you're out in the open with no weapons, facing a crowd of creatures who are all looking at you :). If the anxiety is bad enough, you get an "amygdala hijack". Your fear centre takes over and you feel like you're about to make a puddle of yourself.

An amygdala hijack cannot be averted by "looking for friendly faces", "starting with a personal story", "picturing the audience naked" etc. Because once you've been hijacked you're no longer the "you" that can process rational argument.

So conquering public speaking anxiety means desensitizing the amygdala beforehand. That's why practice works. With repeated exposure, your prefrontal cortex sets up a neural pathway that dampens the fear reaction.

Finally, all the proven techniques for handling anxiety in general, like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) work for public speaking nervousness too. On the day of the speech, simple anti-anxiety breathing exercises will help. One that I've used is known as 7-11. Breath in to a count of seven, and out to a count of 11. Do that at least half a dozen times and you'll notice a calmness, it has the added benefit of giving power to your voice.

Anyhow back to Toastmasters, I've been a member for ten years. I wished I had joined earlier. Now when I see people embarking on their careers, I try to tell them not to wait like I did. It's unbelievable the doors it will open for you.
posted by storybored at 7:40 PM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

: " ... it is still clear to the audience I'm nervous. ... Can you help me get past this?"

Best thing I've ever found to do is to cop to the fear -- "Damn, do I ever hate it when I get scared when I talk in front of a group." and every head in the room will be nodding in understanding, they are now, all of them, on your side.

It really does work.

It's humbling, but that's really the point anyways -- you've got to let them know you can't do this well. But it's clear anyways, it's not like it's some big secret, at least not if you're like me -- I can't hide it out when I'm scared and speaking.

Give it a shot, maybe it'll work for you; I've mentioned it to some others, some of them have found it helpful, too.

And yeah, what everyone upthread has said -- it does get easier as you do it more. And once you break free of the fears, it can really be a lot of fun. (It's not like I never have fears but talking them out in front of the group knocks them to rags, and once freed I can be myself, and smile and be easy with it all.

Good luck!
posted by dancestoblue at 9:07 PM on April 26, 2012

When I was about to defend my masters, I remember everyone telling me to join toastmasters and I didn't, and I can say with confidence years later that was a huge mistake. I only got limited speaking time as a teaching assistant and I got to occasionally lecture a class, but I was terrified at my masters defense but did ok. Toastmasters would have helped immensely.

Now that I've spoken several dozen times at tech conferences around the world, I can say with even more experience that Toastmasters is probably the hands-down best way to get experience, get practice, and get good feedback. A lot of public speaking is like stand up comedy, where you just get better with practice and age.

If you don't join a speaking group, I would strongly urge you to prepare way farther in advance than you normally do. I can say that a few times where I got minimal practice before a talk that still went well were the times I finished my slide deck over a month before my talk, and it let me practice it backwards and forwards for weeks on my own. Then I gave the talk to my partner, I did it over iChat video with friends, and I did it for coworkers.
posted by mathowie at 9:23 PM on April 26, 2012

Classical musician here. I'm all for the organic method of dealing with stage fright - practice. However, an industry secret is that many, many of us take a low-dose prescription beta blocker (brand name: Inderal; generic name:propanolol) before performances. We're talking 1/10th the dose used for heart patients - 10mg in my case. It blocks the uptake of adrenaline so you have fewer physical symptoms, which often leads to a natural calming of the mental aspect. I should add that most doctors will happily prescribe it for performance anxiety, even though it's technically a non-approved use. The only relevant side effects that I've experienced are mild dry mouth and occasionally feeling slightly "robotic". My two cents.
posted by aliasless at 11:57 PM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just a note about your audience. I was at a presentation yesterday where someone's hands were shaking noticeably. I did not think less of him for this: my thoughts were "Glad it's not me giving a presentation" and "good on him for breezing right past it".
posted by SuckPoppet at 12:38 AM on April 27, 2012

I would like some help being okay with being nervous, being clearly nervous, during presentations.

Can I just say that I love the way you have framed this question? You are nervous while you are speaking and that's okay! With practice you can get past that feeling, but for now it's there and you're not struggling against it. That's perfect!

Public speaking discomfort is unbelievably common, as others have already noted. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and much of the audience will relate to your experience and be rooting for you. So go ahead and stand up there, shakey voice and all! You are brave to be facing your fear.
posted by Bebo at 4:34 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bebo, that's a great point! I just realized my entire post upthread didn't answer the original question. :). Not only that, anonymous, you already know that practice is the ultimate answer. My bad on jumping the gun and making you read stuff you already knew.

So here's an attempt to actually answer the question.

How do you become okay with being nervous? Before you speak, give yourself permission to have all of the physical symptoms. If shaky hands is the issue, bring your hands up and say to them in your head "I give you permission to be shaky". If a fluttery voice is the issue, focus on your throat and say to yourself "It's okay to flutter".

One of the things that makes nervousness worse is the tight loop: You notice shaky hands and then you think oh no, i'm nervous, so then your hands get more shaky etc.... If you give yourself permission to have shaky hands, you'll notice them and remember "oh yeah, shaky hands, that's okay".

I used this technique before in a piano recital. And the strangest thing was that my hands didn't shake.
posted by storybored at 9:03 AM on April 27, 2012

I started my first few presentations with a (fake) telephone number, going: 'Okay, before I begin, I haven't done this very often so I'm really nervous. This is my mum's number. If I pass out from fear, please call her.' This both addressed the issue and lightened the air a bit for me. People laughed at the stupid joke (possibly to reassure me, I don't know :) and it kind of made it easier to start, having spoken to them already.

(Note: only do this in a culture where people will understand that you're joking!)
posted by Skyanth at 8:17 AM on May 3, 2012

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