The nerves start to grip me a week before my presentation is even scheduled. I wake up in the morning anticipating complete disaster. How desperately I want my peers to validate my work, but all that comes to my mind is sheer panic and loss of composure.
Thoughts Storm Through My Head
Have I invested enough time into my presentation?
Do I even know what I am talking about?
My grade really depends on strong execution, and I can’t afford to blow this presentation!
What if I have a panic attack and have to run out of the room in tears due to lack of breath? That would be totally humiliating? Everyone will think of me as weak and laugh at me!
No one is going to want to work with me in the future if I don’t do a good job.
If they don’t like me, it might impact my chances of a job after I graduate.
Is everyone going to laugh at my work and think I’m incompetent?
What if I pass out?
Maybe I should just call in sick. It’s too much to bare!
I have never once passed out from any presentation that I have given. I have given many presentations and worked with many different people on several successful projects. People have always complemented me on my ability to connect with an audience, so where do these thoughts of failure come from?
From a pure statistical standpoint based on historical events, there is a 0% chance of me failing, and yet my thoughts throw me off the deep end and I can’t help but feel like the best solution is complete avoidance.
If you are anything like me, the focal point is perfection, and the margin for error is negligible. But, where does this immense pressure come from and why does it consume me so far in advance?
As humans, we’re hard-wired to worry about our reputation above almost all things. There are primitive parts of your brain that control your reaction to threats on your reputation, making these reactions extremely difficult to control.
These reactions to threats are precisely what Charles Darwin tested when he visited a snake exhibit at a zoo in London. Darwin tried to remain perfectly calm while putting his face as close to the glass as possible in front of a puff adder snake that was ready to strike.
However, every time the snake would lunge toward him, he would grimace and jump backward. Darwin wrote his findings in his diary,
“My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.”
He concluded that his response to fear was an ancient reaction that has not been effected by nuances in modern civilization. This response is know as the “fight or flight” syndrome, a natural process that is designed to protect your body from harm.
So, if fear of judgement is what I am really fighting with, then what are my solutions to this mental jailer?
Solutions for Stage Fright
This is one of the best solutions for mitigating fear. When you have practised in front of a couple friends or family members in the exact same placement of your laptop and the same position of your clicker the body will assume a certain familiarity on game day. The idea is to minimize any many variables as possible, and creating a standardized routine will be one less thing you need to worry about when the actual event takes place. The biggest assumption you need to take account for is the different crowd reaction and the new presentation environment. Visualize yourself in the exact setting on the same stage that you will be making your presentation on. Walk your way through the entire process in your head from start to finish.
If you experience anxiety prior to your seminar, talk, or presentation it is important to monitor your posture. When the amygdala starts to fire due to worry and stress the body goes into defence mode. Understand that the amygdala can not distinguish between ‘real’ and imagined threats. So a typical experience for an amygdala to fire would be you cross paths with a bear on a morning hike. But, in your case you are not facing a life or death battle with a 500lb bear, but rather your own negative anticipation of failure. The body then shuts off blood flow from digestion, and various other areas of the body.The frontal cortex shuts down you lose memory selection, so you forget how many times you have been in this anxiety ridden spot and have come through the other side with no issues. The neck and shoulders curve forward in subliminal protection and you soon feel completely out of control, being flooded with adrenaline. Performance anxiety is strictly based on negative self talk and negative anticipation. The physical and mental stress response takes place under your own guidance. To help reduce some of the physical response and help reduce the production of stress hormones there is a simple stretch you can do.
Most people move through life without taking the time to regiment their self talk. Self talk is the internal dialogue that we have with ourselves on the subconscious level, acting as the silent rudder that guides our choices. The beautiful thing about this rudder is that it can be moved in a position that sails our ships to supportive grounds. Take to the time to really assess your internal dialogue and be the watcher of the thoughts that enter in your mind a few days prior to your presentation. Instead of reacting harshly to your spiralling fears, trust that you have the ability to support yourself and instil confidence in your own abilities (yes, I said abilities, and you do have plenty of them).
This is the tough one that people react to harshly. This technique is absolutely 100% effectively and should be used as a regular tool. Type the word “affirmation” into Google and you will have over three million results, this is a highly studied term. Affirmations are not just taught by the likes of Tony Robbins, Louise Hays, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer and several spiritual leaders, but medical backing has proved the worthiness of this approach as well.
You are probably sitting there asking yourself affirmations should I use?
” I am poised, peaceful and strong during presentations”
” People always enjoy my presentations and reward me with genuine applause”
” I am one of the most successful public speakers in Canada/USA/Europe”**
** This may not be true, but neither were all of the fears you created in your head and reacted to with such tension, so why not try the opposite. Remember your amygdala does not differentiate between ‘real’ and imagined thoughts.
 Performance Review
This trick will separate the boys from the men, or the girls from the women. Take the time to jot down some notes immediately after your presentation. Write down some areas where you felt you did poorly and did well. Don’t judge the thoughts that come to mind, just write them down.
Then take the time to ask a couple people who you respect and trust will provide you with fair non biased feedback on your performance. When they have done they analysis ask them about the areas you had outlined with negative self appraisal. Chances are most of your points are not validated and you are much harder on yourself than any one of your peer reviews.
This outlines the fact that self criticism has little to no basis, and needs to be eliminated or overridden by supportive self-talk. The blind-spots that are outlined from your peer reviews will give you some perspective from the audience, the people that long for connection and something they can relate with. Some of the most powerful speeches that have ever been rise to supremacy not due to strong vocabulary use, but rather an emotional tone and message used to express and engage the listeners. Give the crowd something they can feel relate with on a personal level. They want to see that you are human first and foremost, and then an expert. Your own vulnerabilities and short-comings are a great place to start !