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How to Calm Your Nerves Before a Big Presentation

Oct. 27, 2016 Harvard Business Review

Observe, Accept, and Reframe

First, recognize that feeling anxious or being nervous before a big presentation is normal. The human fight-or-flight response kicks in, attempting to ward off the threat. But instead of running or fighting, which just creates more resistance and angst, simply observe those instincts and get comfortable with the idea that discomfort is part of the game.

Consider Bill Russell, a five-time winner of the NBA’s most valuable player award and a 12-time all-star who is often credited for leading the Celtics to 11 NBA championships. Before games, Russell was often so nervous that he threw up. But he didn’t let his nerves get in the way of his performance on the court. Like Russell, we can recognize that nerves are part of our process, and rather than beat ourselves up about it, we can go out and perform at a championship level.

Beth Levine, author of a book on leadership lessons from the sports world and founder of SmartMouth Communications, has worked with professional athletes as well as leaders in organizations on presentations and media training. Over the course of a 30-year career in PR, corporate communications, and coaching, Levine says, “almost everyone I’ve worked with has some version of feeling nervous before big presentations. It’s the rare person who doesn’t get nervous. Therefore, it’s best to embrace nervousness rather than resist it or push it away.”

Once we notice what’s happening, without judgment, we can calmly reframe the situation to take the edge off our dread. Levine advises, “Think of a quarterback playing in his first Super Bowl game. Yes, he may be nervous, but he’s not dreading it or seeing it as an obligation. He’s seeing it as a great opportunity that he’s ready to sink his teeth into. The nerves are a signal that this is something that matters to him.”

Get Present by Returning to Your Body

When we let our nerves get the best of us, we lose our presence in the moment and get hooked into an incessant stream of critical or worrisome thoughts in our minds: What if I fail? What if this doesn’t go well? What will they think of me?

Bringing awareness to our physical bodies can help. Notice the physical sensations happening: a racing heart, shallow breathing, tightening of the chest, sweat, a cracking voice. Be aware of your body’s cues and take a deep breath to regain some sense of the present. Notice your surroundings. Anchor or touch something physical, such as a table or the slide advancer, or push your weight into your toes and feet. Here are a few other ways you can help calm your nerves by tuning into your body:

  • Don’t take the basics for granted. Get a good night’s sleep, hydrate, and watch your caffeine intake before a big presentation so that your heart rate isn’t already elevated. Also, make sure that you’ve eaten a good meal and that you aren’t going in hungry.
  • Strike a power pose. Some research has shown that holding strong physical poses (e.g., hands on hips, feet apart, like Wonder Woman) can make you feel more confident. One paper found it even led to hormonal changes, though that finding has since been disputed. But even if power poses are just a placebo effect, plenty of people say this technique helps them feel grounded before a big talk.
  • Shift your center of gravity. Stand up and take a deep breath. Imagine a heavy lead ball in your stomach. Feel the weight of it. Feel the solidity of it. Bring your focus here instead of to your head or chest.
  • Own the space. If you can, get to the room early and really imagine owning it. Walk the perimeter, check out the configuration, and notice the size of the room. Like a radio dial, think about how much you can authentically dial up your volume, expression, or gestures to match the size of room.

Prepare a Great Opening and Warm Up

Good preparation can help ease the nerves. Try to allot time for organizing your thoughts, determining the best flow, and drafting your talking points. Be mindful of the ratio of time spent preparing slides and preparing what you are going to say; most of us spend way too much time on slides. Practicing flow and transitions can also be helpful (but be careful of becoming overly scripted). The most important thing you can do is prepare and practice the opening of your presentation, which will set the stage for everything that follows. As Levine says, “The adrenaline rush of nerves usually dissipates in about two minutes. Start by saying something positive or unexpected to set the tone.”

Levine describes an executive she coached who was nervous about preparing for a series of intranet videos for employees. She had him set the tone for the audience and himself by smiling and saying something positive and authentic, such as, “I love being here and what we get to do each day.” This helped him relax and ease into the rest of the video.

When you’re able to engage the audience directly, solicit their views to buy time and get more grounded at the start of a presentation. For example:

  • In a speaking situation, poll the audience. You could ask, by show of hands, how many people have been at the organization for over 10 years. Or start by asking a few members of the audience why they are here for the topic.
  • In a formal business presentation, frame the agenda and check in with the group about it. You might say something like, “For our time together today, we will be covering x, y, and z — do these sound like the right topics to focus on, or is something missing?”
  • Warm up your vocal chords before the presentation begins, especially if you are introverted by nature. Chat up the barista at the coffee shop or ask a colleague how her day is going.
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