Practice, practice, practice.

By Maggie Seaver
July 31, 2019

Clammy hands, dry throat, jelly knees—sounds a lot like stage fright, doesn’t it? You don’t have to be a professional actor or athlete to experience performance anxiety. Something as routine as giving a work presentation can be equally nerve-wracking for a lot of professionals, especially if you’re out of practice. 

When it comes to a professional presentation—even if you’re tasked with briefly summarizing a few stats in a casual meeting—you’re going to want to deliver it as smoothly as possible. Even if you’re not a naturally gifted public speaker (few people are, and that’s OK!), there are foolproof tricks you can master to help bust nerves and nail your next spiel like an absolute pro. Angela Aylward, a public speaking tutor at Varsity Tutors and the founder and creator of AMA Creative Solutions, shares her best advice for breezing through your next work presentation, anxiety free.

First, Know That Nerves Are Completely Normal and Natural

If standing up and talking in front of people excites and energizes, consider yourself very lucky. For the rest of us, public speaking is straight-up frightening. “First of all, it’s one thousand percent natural,” Aylward says. “The majority of people who spend any time on the stage or in front of a board meeting can speak to that fear, at least early in their career.” 

Recognize Your Imposter Syndrome—Then Break Through It

“Even the most practiced and expert public speakers have some sort of performance anxiety before they go up to speak,” Aylward says. “Part of it has to do with the fact that we’re social creatures and we’re terrified about being judged, especially being judged badly.” 

More specifically, many people experience imposter syndrome, a phenomenon of feeling like a total fraud, like they don’t belong, even though it’s completely untrue. “There’s this terror of misspeaking and being exposed as something that we’re not, but that little voice in our brains always tells us we are,” Aylward says. “So if we give a bad presentation, they’re going to know that we’re big old frauds.” 

The only way you’ll burst through that bubble of feeling (falsely) unworthy of your position and the task of presenting materials, is to remind yourself that you, specifically, were asked to present, and you, specifically, are recognized as well-versed in that particular subject. Own it.

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Prepare as Much as Possible

You’ve heard this one before and you’ll hear it again. “It sounds very rudimentary, but the better prepared you are, and the more aware you are of the material you’re presenting, the more comfortable you’re going to be with it,” Aylward says. “Know the goal of the presentation and make sure you present your info in a way that conveys it to your audience.”

Practice—Even Though You Don’t Want To

Aylward admits this can often be one of the hardest parts, since even practicing—whether it’s on your own in the bathroom mirror or in front of a trusted peer—can be nerve-wracking. “The more familiar you are with what you want to say and how you’re going to say it, the easier it becomes when you’re actually in front of people.” 

If you’re brave enough, go the extra mile and record yourself to catch any verbal crutches, timing issues, awkward speech patterns, or others that could be hindering your best delivery. Some of the biggest mistakes you can make during a presentation are not projecting and speaking too quickly—two kinks you can absolutely smooth out while prepping. If you’ll only be allotted a certain amount of time to present, time yourself while you practice too.

Choose a Non-Jittery Drink

Even if you do it every day, don’t chug a triple espresso before your presentation. (Think of it this way: You can reward yourself with a coffee run after you’ve crushed the meeting.) Caffeine can make you jittery, exacerbate nerves, and cause you to speak faster. “If you want a drink beforehand to wake up, go with a black tea,” Aylward suggests. “It has about as much caffeine as coffee, but it won’t spike your adrenaline as much.”  

Water is your friend too. “As someone with anxiety, water helps me a lot,” Aylward says. “It’s  something we don’t think about because we’re supposed to hydrate anyway, but having a glass of water will help you get back into yourself.”

And needless to say, avoid alcohol. Sure, there are some instances where you’re fine to sip on a glass of wine before speaking—say, if you’re about to present at a benefit dinner or other post-office function—but don’t overindulge (trust us, you’ll regret it).

Breathe—Seriously

You probably knew this tip was coming at some point, so here it is. “It’s important to recognize that we don’t take time to breathe, especially when we’re nervous.” Aylward says. “Focus on the inhale and exhale of a few slow breaths to slow your heart rate, become more alert, and center yourself.”

Use Visual Aids

Having an outline that you and your audience can see will help you get your message across. Use visual aids like graphs and images, but also literally outline where you’ll be taking this presentation, point by point. Aylward says, for example, it’s good to begin your presentation with something like: “This is our quarterly budget meeting, here are the general statistics that we found, here are a few areas to improve, and so on.” By outlining your presentation, you allow yourself to refer back to it and stay on track. As for tech and tools, Aylward loves the classics, and says a well-thought-out PowerPoint or Prezi presentation always makes a meeting go more smoothly.

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Arrive Early

Not just on time, early. This lets you get acquainted with the space, figure out where you’ll stand (or sit), go over notes, make sure all the technology you need is working, links and videos are loading, and so on. Winging it on the tech front will undoubtedly end in awkward, anxiety-ridden hiccups. That said, if something does happen (like your awesome video won’t load), keep your cool—it happens to the best of us, and no one’s going to blame you.

Know Your Audience

“Keep in mind who you’re talking to,” Aylward says. “Are you talking to other experts, clients, peers, your boss? Every single person you talk to needs different information.” For example, your boss has a unique understanding of the material and requires a different presentation than your client.

If You’re Put on the Spot, Don’t Panic

Whether you’re giving a presentation or sitting in the audience, you might be called upon to answer a question—catching you totally off guard. Aylward knows how tricky those unplanned, on-the-spot moments can be. “Own your vulnerability,” she says. It’s perfectly OK—and often your only option—to say, “That’s a great question, I hadn’t thought of that.” Write it down and say you’ll look into it ASAP, and get back to them.

Be Nice to Yourself, and Let Yourself Be Vulnerable

Your audience is probably not expecting perfection (a lot of the time they’ll probably just be relieved not to be up there themselves). “People aren’t going to judge you as harshly as you think they will, so allow yourself to be vulnerable and adaptive,” Aylward says. “Realize that everyone’s been where you are, everyone is (or has been) terrified to speak in front of their peers, clients, and bosses.”

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