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Three steps for keeping your nerves at bay

Keep your nerves in check by keeping your ego in check. 

Last week, my 11-year-old had to speak at school assembly. 

This is not something he used to have an issue with. But times have changed. When asked how he got on, he answered, “OK. But my face went red as a tomato. I’m not sure why. But I was a tomato”. His 7-year-old sister helpfully (?) confirmed this was true. 

None of us like being a tomato. Or having a shaky voice or trembling hands. When your body shows your audience the nerves you feel, it is as if it is betraying you. Sometimes you don’t even feel that nervous in the first place, but once you realise you’re going red – it all escalates. The nerves increase, the face develops into an even deeper shade, and it is all downhill from there. 

When I asked my son why he felt this happened, the response was one I hear from my clients all the time. “I felt uncomfortable with everyone looking at me”.

So, what is the magic formula for stopping your body freaking out when you get up to speak?

Well, first we need to understand that the reason we react like this is down to how we are wired. In prehistoric times, people staring at you was considered a threat. The chances were that if someone or something was looking right at you, you were in danger. Unfortunately, our amygdala does not understand the difference between a sabre tooth tiger back then, and your boss in the boardroom today. So, when you are standing at the front of the room with many eyes looking right at you – your brain tells you the audience is a threatening predator.  And it responds accordingly. Understandable? Yes. Helpful? No, because it can mean shortness of breath, a shaky body or red face. Or one of the many other bodily responses to (perceived) physical signs of danger. 

So, we hide. We look down. We look away. We read our notes. And frantically wish the ground would swallow us whole!

The ‘how’ of keeping your amygdala at bay is to stop thinking of presentations as a type of performance. Stop making it about YOU. Instead try focusing your mind on providing value for your audience.  

So how does this look?

Step 1: There is no ‘I’ in a Key Message

The first step is to prepare your key message around your audience, not yourself. 

Think about what the purpose of your presentation is. Is it about what you want to do or say? You will create a much more valuable key message if you make it about your audience instead.  Ask yourself this question: “What do I want my audience to know or do?”. By answering this you will shift the focus from what you want to talk about, to the results you want for your audience. 

Note the difference between the following 2 key messages:

  1. I want to talk about “Our new CRM system”
  2. I want my audience to know that “Updating the system daily will help you manage clients”.

By simply changing the focus to what we want our audience to do, the message instantly becomes more effective, and therefore more credible. Check out last month’s post for more on crafting valuable key messages.

Step 2: Refocus your mind from ‘me’ to ‘the goal’.

The next step to offering value is to train your mind to invest its time wisely. 

Think about what kind of thoughts rattle through your head before giving a presentation:

“What will they think of me if I can’t answer a question”?

 “What if they think my presentation is rubbish”?

 “Oh no, if I muck this up, they’ll think I’m not up to the job”.

All of these thoughts are very common, and very tiring. Not to mention self-indulgent and not the least bit helpful. Stewing over them is not time well spent. Instead, try replacing any ‘me’ thoughts with goal related thoughts. 

Rather than thinking – “what will they think of me?”, think “what is my goal today”?

Could it be: 

  • “to show them how passionate I am about change”.
  • “to show everyone in the room the potential of this product”.
  • “to get everyone excited about the future of this company”.

Focusing your energy and thoughts on what you want to achieve is a much better use of your time, and will help give you purpose and feel more credible.

3. Don’t feed the fire. 

What about when you do all of this, but you still feel yourself going red? The answer is to keep it in perspective. Keep a rational mind. 

As your face starts to heat up, or you hear your voice shaking, it is too easy to start listening to your ego: 

“Oh no. They see I’m embarrassed. I’m doomed”!

“Oh no! They see I’m going red. They will never take me seriously”.

Again. Not helpful. Or true. 

Acceptance of the fight or flight response helps you to deal with this situation. 

Try this instead: “Stink, I am going red. Not ideal, but I am going to focus on carrying on and getting my message across”. 

The truth is that we have all sat through meetings, speeches, conferences, and presentations where people have gone red, had a shaky voice or trembling hands (even perhaps, all three).  

But we haven’t noticed or haven’t cared.  

Because we are all focused on ourselves. What we really care about is our time – and whether it is being spent wisely or being wasted. You are not going to think any less of a presenter that has a red face. But you are going to think less of a presenter who doesn’t offer value, and wastes your time. 

So, my advice to my son (if he ever decides to listen to me) is this: 

Don’t let a red face get in the way of a good message

Stop presenting. Start talking. 

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