8 Ways to Control Nervousness

Let’s say you’ve got a very important presentation that’s due this week.  The more you prepare, and the closer you get to the deadline, the more nervous you get.  How can you control your nervousness so it doesn’t sabotage your presentation?  How do you get those butterflies to fly in formation?

I’m going to share with you eight different strategies for controlling your nervousness so it doesn’t sabotage your presentation.

Strategy #1 – Be Prepared:

This one comes from the boy scouts and it’s, “Be Prepared”.  Now I’m going to get more sophisticated than this first strategy. But, I’m going to assume that you’re already prepared with your content.

Here’s the good news, even if you’re not prepared for your presentation these strategies will also work.

Strategy #2 – Shift Your Focus:

Shift your focus from a presenter focus to an audience focus.  What do I mean by this?  I’ll give you an illustration…

Recently, I was speaking in California. I’d handed my typewritten introduction to the moderator. Let’s call her Melissa. Here’s how the conversation played out:

Melissa: “Ed, I won’t have time to memorize your introduction.”

Me: “That’s okay, Melissa. I don’t expect you to memorize the introduction. However, there are three important points in the introduction that are vital for the audience and it helps to set up the talk. Just go ahead and read it.”

Melissa: “Well if I read your introduction, I’m going to look bad.”

Me: “Melissa, let’s be clear about a couple of things. Number one, the introduction is for the audience, it’s not for you. It’s not about you. As I mentioned before, there are three very important points in the introduction that actually help to set up the talk. It’s all about the audience. Number two, if you’re not willing to read the introduction, I’ll be forced to find someone who will. Or, I’ll be perfectly willing to introduce myself. I don’t mean to be a jerk, Melissa, but it’s very, very important that you read the introduction as it has been written. And, I understand that you want to look good, and I can appreciate that. However, again, it’s about the audience, it’s not about you”.

Well, luckily she read the introduction, and to her surprise she actually got three laughs out of it.

After the presentation was over, she walked up on stage and she revealed to the audience what had happened. Now, she didn’t have to do this and, she actually apologized to me and shared with the audience that she had learned a very valuable lesson. That lesson was…be audience focused, not presenter focused.

Now, the moral of the story is this. One of the reasons you’re probably nervous is because you’re focused on yourself.  You’re concerned about what other people think about you. And I’m not suggesting that you ignore that. However, if you shift your focus from yourself to the content you’re going to deliver and that value you’re going to provide the audience. This will help mitigate some of that nervousness.

So, shift your focus from being what I call, “Presenter Focused” to “Audience Focused.”

Strategy #3 – Ask Effective Questions:

Ask effective questions. My friend, Darren LaCroix, the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, has a tool called “My Connect Card” which comes as a laminated card which fits neatly in your wallet. On it, there are four questions: 

  1. What is my intention?  What is my intention for this presentation?
  2. Am I present?
  3. Will I have fun?
  4. How would I give this presentation if I knew it was my last one ever?

Great questions to ponder, especially prior to a presentation. In my opinion, these questions help to ground you. They also help you to focus.

Strategy #4 – Make a Declaration:

Make declarations! Declare your abilities. Declare what you want to happen. Here are a couple of examples. “I have important knowledge and experience to share”, “I add value to people’s lives.” Those are declarations. What are yours?

Strategy #5 – Create Your Own Questions and Declarations:

So, if you don’t feel comfortable with the questions that Darren has created on his My Connect Card, or the declarations I’ve shared with you, make up your own.  The most important part here is for you to feel comfortable, so you can mitigate your nervousness.

Strategy #6 – Assume Allies, Not Enemies

I’d like for you to think about when you were in school. Think about the worst presentation you ever had to endure. It seemed like it lasted forever. Audiences do not want to go through that type of presentation. In fact, they have a rooting interesting in you. That is, they’re rooting for you to be good. They want you to be good. They’re hoping that you’re good. They’re already on your side. Assume the audience is your ally, not your enemy.

Strategy #7 – Memorize Your Opening Word for Word:

Before delving into this strategy, I want you to think about the answers to these two questions.

  1. What part of a presentation is a presenter the most nervous?  The beginning, the middle or the end?
  2. What part of a presentation is the audience the most skeptical?  The beginning, the middle or the end?

I’m willing to bet that your answer was the beginning for both questions.  When is a presenter the most nervous? At the beginning. When is the audience the most skeptical?  At the beginning. That’s a bad combination, don’t you agree?

So, to help mitigate these circumstances, memorize your opening word for word. Know it cold. This will do several things. First, you will gain confidence knowing specifically how you’re going to open up your presentation. Secondly, the audience will gain confidence in you when you come out crisp and sharp. Or as Hall of Fame Speaker, Patricia Fripp says, “You come out punching.” You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Strategy #8 – Breathe:

Try some breathing exercises. Here are a few of my favorite examples from the infamous, Dr. Andrew Weil.

  • Stimulating Breath, or Bellows Breathing. Stimulating breath is adapted from a yoga breathing technique. Its aim is to raise your vital energy, and increase your alertness. You inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, keeping your mouth closed, but relaxed. Your breaths are in and out, they’re short in duration.

Now this is a noisy breathing exercise. Try for three in-and-out breath cycles per second. This produces a quick movement of the diaphragm suggesting a bellows. Breathe normally after each cycle. Do NOT do more than 15 seconds on your first try. Each time you practice the stimulating breath, you can increase your time by five seconds or so, until you reach a full minute.

If done properly, you will feel invigorated. Comparable to height and awareness you feel after a good workout. You should feel the affect in the back of your neck, the diaphragm, the chest and the abdomen. Try this breathing exercise the next time you need an energy boost, or you feel yourself reaching for a cup of coffee.

  • Four-Seven-Eight, or Relaxing breath. This is a very simple exercise. You inhale for four, you hold for seven, and you breathe out for a count of eight. Again, in for four, hold it for seven and out for eight. Initially, when you practice this exercise, do four repetitions. Eventually, you want to build up to eight repetitions.

This is a great exercise to help calm you down. In addition to some of the mental exercises I’ve given you so far, this will actually help your body control your nervousness.

  • Breath Counting. This is a traditional Zen practice. You sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight and head inclined slightly forward. Gently close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then let your breath come naturally without trying to influence it. Ideally, it will be quiet and slow, but deep in a rhythmic way.

So to begin the exercise, count one to yourself, as you exhale. The next time you exhale, count two and so on up to five. Then begin a new cycle counting one on the next exhalation. Never count higher than five  and count only when you exhale. You will know your attention has wandered when you find yourself up to eight, 12 or 19. Aim 10 minutes of this form of meditation.

Those are three different exercises that will help your body relax in order to combat nervousness.

To recap, use these different strategies to help you combat nervousness:

  1. Be Prepared.
  2. Shift Your Focus
  3. Ask Effective Questions
  4. Make Declarations
  5. Create Your Own Questions and Declarations
  6. Assume Allies, Not Enemies
  7. Memorize Your Opening
  8. Breathe

I can assure you that using these different strategies will help control your nervousness so it won’t sabotage your presentation, and you will have a breakthrough on the stage.

I would love to hear how you incorporated these strategies at your next presentation.

Leave a Reply