overcoming nerves

Overcoming Nerves When Presenting

Nervousness has a way of spiralling, where you may notice all of a sudden that your heart is pounding, your knees are shaking, or your voice is trembling. Here are some helpful tips to get control back.

The secret you want to learn is not necessarily the confidence that comes from experience, although that helps, but a change in attitude. When you learn to shift your focus from yourself to the audience, you start to release the hold that fear has on you.

One of the things that you will notice is that when you are well prepared for your presentation, you will feel less nervous about it.

While confidence can be built from repeated practice, a change in attitude also helps enormously. This requires that you shift your thinking from being all about you to focusing on your audience. What are their needs? What is their agenda?


Nervousness can be attributed to many sources. These two are particularly important:

  • One is the constant stream of internal negative comments that nags speakers when they begin to think about the presentation. (“I wonder how I’ll come across this time? Last time I made a presentation, I was sure everyone was laughing at me when I had so much trouble with the equipment.”)
  • The other source of tension comes from hyper-responsibility. The presenter feels that he or she alone is responsible for the reactions and well-being of everyone in the room.

Think about it this way: you believe in what you’re saying. You’re prepared. In fact, for this presentation, you’re the only person who is so well prepared. Your audience needs to know what you have to say.

Change the words you say to yourself from negative messages to more positive ones. List your concerns on a sheet of paper before the presentation. Then, for every negative message, substitute a positive one. For instance, if your negative message is, “I’m a nervous wreck,” write, “I can channel this nervous energy into the presentation and give a more enthusiastic performance.” This effort may take some repetitions, but if you give it a chance and believe in it, eventually it works.

Any tendency you have toward taking responsibility for everyone in the room can also be fought. Come to terms with the fact that everyone in the room will not necessarily accept your ideas. It’s not your job to please everyone. Your job is to get your message across in clearly understandable terms to the people who must have the information. Concentrate on the decision maker and on those who respond positively to you. Ignore the others so that you can complete your presentation without their negative energy interfering.

It is hard to counteract nervousness if you do not feel in control of the situation, so take time before the presentation begins to put yourself in control.

  1. Allow plenty of time to check out the room and equipment.
  2. Start on time. Unless the decision maker in your audience is delayed, don’t wait for stragglers. Delaying will make you and your audience fidgety.
  3. Greet people as they come in. Chat casually with people you know until it’s time to start.
  4. Eliminate any physical barriers that stand between the audience and you. If you’re behind a table or lectern, move away from it. Don’t cling to the podium or your projector. It makes you look nervous, and it really is a physical barrier between you and your audience. Removing barriers opens the way to meaningful conversation.

Sequencing Ideas

By putting your ideas into order, it will be easier for you to remember and easier for your listener to grasp your ideas.

  • Study: Break your ideas into simple, basic components.
  • Separate: Present each component separately.
  • Move Forward: By building momentum successively with each component, you gain and keep your listener’s interest.

Positive Style

While our words deliver a significant message, our non-verbal signals also provide their own message. You know that you are in sync when the two are working together! A good positive presentation style will give you confidence and also help overcome nerves.

In research carried out by Albert Mehrabian (though often misinterpreted), it was established that when it came to discussing emotions, only 7% of the speaker’s message was communicated by words, and that tone of voice was responsible for about 38% of the meaning and body language about 55%. This means that the words themselves played only a very small part in conveying meaning. In other conversations (not the ones about emotions), we know that tone of voice and body language have a large impact on what we are saying.

The face and eyes are the most expressive means of body communication. Additional positive or negative messages are sent by your gestures, posture, and the space between you and the other person. Body language must be in tune with your words and tone, or you send a mixed and often confusing message. Positive body language is important to supporting your words and ensuring complete understanding.

Remember, your attitude is projected through your voice as well as your body language. Make sure your body language always says, “I know what I’m doing and saying,” or, “I’m here to help as best I can.”

The speed or rhythm of your speech is important as well. Clear communication includes appropriate pauses and inflexions to support your words.

Qualities of a Good Voice

  • Alert: Awake and interested
  • Pleasant: A smile in your voice (when appropriate)
  • Natural: Straightforward language, without jargon
  • Enthusiastic: Glad to speak
  • Distinct: Easy to understand with moderate volume and rate
  • Expressive: Well-modulated, varied tone

Whilst presenting is still the number one fear for many people in business, with the correct preparation, practice and a positive attitude, it is possible to deliver confident and persuasive presentations every time.

Recommended Further Reading on Overcoming Nerves

Boothman, Nicholas. How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less. Workman Publishing Company, 2000.

Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Collins, 2006.

Humes, James. Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History’s Greatest Speakers. Three Rivers Press, 2002.

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