Performance anxiety

There are five big challenges when giving presentations. Here is how to overcome them.

A close friend of mine was almost paralysed by the fear of having to get up in front of a large audience and give a talk at a major conference. This went on for a month in the lead up to the talk.


Too many people get that crippling fear – it can be an initial fear of getting started, or worry that people will get bored or maybe start challenging you. The fear can seem to grow exponentially.


Let’s look at the five most difficult situations when making any kind of presentation.


Anxiety and fear

Nerves are useful – they make you feel alert and charged. Turn it into a helpful feeling and don’t try and wish the feeling would go away.

Prepare adequately – this is one of the best ways to beat anxiety, just get all your notes and thoughts ready with plenty of time to spare.

Use deep breathing – a few deep breaths before you start can help to calm you down. Even deep breathing before-hand when you feel the fear escalating.

Use positive visualisation – “see” a successful session or talk, and imagine the audience clapping at the end of it.

Use introductory activity – come in with a task, a question, a puzzle and ask your audience to do it. Even asking them to turn to the person next to them and introduce themselves.

View the audience positively – many people new to speaking make a negative assumption about the audience; that they will think badly of you or want you to fail. Usually the reverse is true.

Be comfortable with silence – learn to accept time with silence without needing to fill every gap.


The boredom factor

Less is more – too many people forget this important point. Keep it simple, don’t fill your presentation with too many points

Fewer slides – avoid the classic mistake of showing too many slides. People get bored with them.

Build in variation – vary the pace and the content and the style; nothing is worse than a monotonous speech with no variation.

Ask for feedback – ask the audience for feedback on an issue, involve them, or give choices.

Watch eyelids – look for people who are bored, eyelids closing and don’t wait till they start snoring; change tack, ask a question, walk around the room, suggest a break, or just make it fun.



Unexpected disasters

Have a back-up plan for potential problems, like limited time – know what you can cut out, or know you can deliver the talk without the slides if the equipment failed.

Remain calm – make a joke if equipment fails, or use the interruption to advantage; call a break since the moment is broken anyway.
Take the lead – shows you are feeling OK.

Offer apology – say you are sorry if something goes wrong, takes longer, didn’t happen etc.

Involve audience in solving problem – for example, the sound of banging on other side of wall; ask one of the group to please go next door to try and sort it out, ask if anyone knows where the air conditioning controls are, ask the audience to give a show of hands if they would like a five minute break to get some water.

Buy time with activity – for example, generating questions for later, reviewing key points with small group sitting at your table.


Difficult, challenging people

Avoid conflict spiral – don’t get caught up with one difficult person, don’t allow any one discussion to escalate.

Defer discussion – if it gets too difficult, defer and suggest meeting after to discuss it one-on-one, or to follow up at another time.

Seek others’ views – ask others in the group what they think about what has been put forward.

Acknowledge their views – acknowledge their views but move on and get alternative views or go to a new topic.


They just don’t buy it

Pick up cues early – look for people who are bored, disappointed, angry or frustrated, and don’t just ignore them. You are lucky if you see the signs early so you can do something about it; so be grateful at least someone is showing you with their body language that they are unhappy.

Ask questions – questions are a gift for a speaker. They buy time, they change direction and they invite a variety of people to participate and mostly they add a better energy to the room.

Listen non-defensively – even if you are being attacked, or your products or services are under fire, do not react emotionally. Just listen and answer professionally and stick to facts. Others will admire you for this skill.

Use lateral persuasion – scenarios, case studies, sometimes a story, anecdote or case example of something related will add a lot of credibility and enable you to overcome negativity.

Collaborate, share expertise – be prepared to offer your knowledge and experience. Don’t feel embarrassed that you are “showing off” Find ways to share your knowledge and skills.



Difficult presentations are only as difficult as you tell yourself – so choose some positive scripts in your head like: I will enjoy this talk and feel good when I have it all prepared. I will gain a lot of experience doing this presentation – making the next one a lot easier.







By Eve Ash, psychologist, author of Rewrite Your Life! and managing director, Seven Dimensions, and co-producer with Peter Quarry of the Ash.Quarry production – Difficult Presentations Made Easy from the Take Away Training series won’t fight against it – it’s a skill I need to develop, and I will!

To read more Eve Ash blogs, click here.



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