The presentation anxiety phenomenon

man awake in bed

Presentation anxiety is probably the most written about topic when it comes to presenting and public speaking. Storytelling, structure and style pale into insignificance in the requests we receive to help professionals calm their inner voice and banish the butterflies.

Despite the ubiquity of this anxiety, at Mindful Presenter we have noticed an interesting phenomenon. When we ask professionals to stand and speak about something personal they truly care about, most of them shine. In other words, despite their insistence that they feel extremely anxious, their audience very rarely sees it. On a scale of 1 to 10 of anxiety, with 10 representing extreme fatigue, we very rarely see anything higher than a 4 or 5.

When the same people turn to speak on a business topic many suddenly lose their energy, personality and passion. That is of course only to be expected; after all talking about seeing your daughter being born is an entirely different league to sharing your health and safety policies at work. The phenomenon remains in that we still rarely see the anxiety they say they feel even when speaking about business. The key difference is that in the absence of their personality shining through when speaking about business, many will lose their audiences attention. When we see or even think that our audience’s attention is waning our discomfort soars.

When we switch from talking about something personal that we care about to something we are paid to care about we often speak as though we are going through the motions rather than because we want to.

I can’t tell you how many people we have worked with who have stood in front of colleagues or strangers to share powerful stories and told us that they were ‘terrified’ yet everyone in the room felt totally engaged. Most people are shocked at the level of anxiety the presenter expressed feeling because they would never had known.

Countless people tell us that on that anxiety scale of 1 to 10 they were at least a 12. Many tell us they feel sick, some tell us they could cry and others say they feel exhausted. It’s a phenomenon because that’s what they say they feel, but in a vast number of cases their audience see the complete opposite.

The question is; how is it possible that someone can feel so uncomfortable yet their audience can’t see it?

It is of course the power of the mind.

Whether you are about to give an important presentation, attend an interview or ask someone out on a date, we have all experienced the latent influence of the mind.

Most people acknowledge the heaven or hell our very own minds can create for us in any situation but when it comes to presenting and public speaking are there other forces at play?

Is it totally down to us?

Could it be partly due to our content and message?

Let’s look at you

Yes of course it must be you. After all you’ve seen so many colleagues and strangers present with confidence so it must be you and not some mysterious external influence.

If so many people can speak without sweaty palms, shaky legs and their heart racing then why can’t you?

Let’s take a closer look.

The fact is that nobody woke up with the gift; it’s not a talent we are born with. At some point everyone felt exactly the same as you did, if not worse. Please don’t let anyone lead you to believe that’s not the case.

None of us were born with the ability to speak instantly let alone speak powerfully.

Those who have achieved the ability to speak with confidence, clarity and impact have had to learn how to do so. Even the most seasoned speaker will tell you that’s it is not easy and they still feel some level of anxiety each time they speak.

How many of us were taught to speak or present publicly at school, college or university?

When we are called upon to do so it’s not a normal, natural thing for most of us to do. We believe we are being judged and the reality is that we are being judged whether we like it or not.

We haven’t been taught how to craft, structure and deliver a high impact presentation and so most of us simply say what we know, read notes or rely totally on our slides.

Is it you?

Yes, it is.

It’s not personal though; you haven’t been singled out by the universe. It affects all of us; no exceptions.

The solution

If you want to learn how to swim, drive a car or speak another language, you would find someone to guide and help you. It’s exactly the same with presenting and public speaking. Find someone who has studied it, done it successfully, is passionate about it and helping others and is able to teach it.

There is a great deal you can do to alleviate your anxiety, manage your inner voice and getting your butterflies flying in formation.

Is it your content?

This is where the phenomenon is really unearthed. Sometimes the reason we feel so nervous is because we are called upon to speak yet we don’t necessarily have:

– A clear and powerful message

– Something of tangible value and relevance to say

– Something we couldn’t just share in an email, document or phone call.

The fact is that if you don’t have a clear and powerful message, and if it isn’t relevant and personal to our audience, you should feel nervous.

The solution

If you are a leader within your organisation, don’t ask professionals to spend time crafting and preparing to present to you something they could easily tell you over the phone or in an email. Presenting is hard; it takes time, effort, focus and often a number of sleepless nights, so don’t make them do it simply because ‘that’s what we’ve always done.’

It’s laudable to want to create an open, friendly and transparent culture but not by making people anxious, frustrated, resentful and bored by insisting they present when they having nothing new, relevant or compelling to share.

If you’re a professional who simply doesn’t have a choice and find yourself having to present in such a tedious culture try this:

Push back – In other words, try to resist the pressure to simply continue the cycle and challenge the status quo instead. Send an email in advance to those who will be attending the meeting explaining that you have nothing new, different relevant or compelling to share which respects and values their time. Offer what you intend to say that you always say in an email and tell them you will be open to questions and a discussion on any point if they still want you to attend the meeting. Make it clear though that you won’t be presenting.

If you have to present then don’t succumb to the pressure or status quo of doing what everyone else does.  Focus exclusively on what you have to share that is of value, relevance and meaning to those who will be listening to you.

For everything you plan to say or show ask yourself this question first, so what?

In other words, imagine one of your colleagues interrupts you at any point and asks, ‘so what, why should I care about that’. If you can’t answer their question mindfully it means that what you are planning to share is simply noise.

Content is the source of extensive frustration, damage and anxiety in many organisations today.

One way you can greatly reduce your anxiety is by having the mindfulness and courage to make sure that what you have to say is content rich.

If it isn’t then be honest and simply send them an email.

I really hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please feel free to share it through your preferred social media channels below and subscribe to our mailing list so you won’t miss any future posts.

If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and presentation coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.

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