How to calm nerves before a presentation

Bit Famous works with businesses and organisations
to help them communicate with confidence.

By Penny Haslam

MD and Founder - Bit Famous

Penny Haslam

How to calm nerves before a presentation - My three step approach

So I get asked all the time, "How do I beat nerves?" Do I still get nervous whenever I'm going to deliver a presentation or a talk in lots of different environments? And I always say that I don't ever try to beat nerves. There's no way you can get rid of them because we're all human, right? So this blog is all about how to support yourself really well while being nervous.

Are nerves just excitement?

Now, some people say exchange the idea of being nervous for feeling excited. And yeah, that works for about a split second for me. So the feeling doesn't really go away. How to handle it is what this blog is all about.

Breaking down your approach to nerves while presenting

So we're going to look at three sections: 

  1. Before your big thing (that you're doing your talk, your presentation, your keynote, your media appearance, your panel appearance, the big thing)
  2.  During the big thing, and then...
  3.  Afterwards. 

Now, the afterwards bit is often overlooked, so I hope you'll enjoy what I've got to say about that. And there's a lot to say on each of those areas, so I've pared it right down to just three tips on each of those areas. So three tips on three areas. You've got nine ideas straight away. Easy, so let's get started.

1. Before - How to calm nerves before your presentation

Before you speak, present, talk, you might start feeling nervous. It might be from the minute you get asked or the minute you volunteer to do the presentation in front of colleagues or go to a conference and take part in a panel. 

It might be that you begin to feel fluttery and have symptoms of nervousness at that point, and that's really natural. And that's the point at which to start focusing on yourself.

What's the script in your head? Is it "this will go horribly wrong."

So the first thing I would ask you to notice is your script in your head. What are you saying to yourself about yourself in the circumstance that's coming up? A lot of my clients will say out loud in a session or in a presentation skills training day, "Oh, it's gonna go horribly wrong. Oh, I'm gonna be rubbish at this. No one's gonna understand what I'm saying. I won't be relatable. What have I got to say that's of any interest?" And so that script, you've got to absolutely grab hold of that and smash it to pieces because it's no use whatsoever.

Tell yourself that your presentation will be ok

So, flipping the script to:

  •  This is gonna be okay
  • I'm gonna do well at this 
  • I'm gonna try my best
  • I'm gonna make some real effort into getting this right and enjoying it when I'm doing it
  • I can't wait now.

 None of that might be true, but say it to yourself over and over again as much as you can. And every time you say something dreadful, like, "Oh, I'll probably fall over on the way to the stage. Oh, I'm gonna look like an idiot," try as hard as you can to catch on and just delete, delete, delete. 

In fact, a client of mine said, "Oh, that's quite radical, isn't it? Changing how you frame what you say? It's like manifesting, isn't it? Manifesting what you actually want?" So, if you want to call it manifesting, fine. I call it changing the script. But whatever you do, do not go down that dreadful rabbit hole of everything's going to be awful.

Visualise the success of your presentation

So, as well as words, pictures work really well for the brain. I tried this years ago when I was going for a job interview. I visualised positively how the interview was gonna go. I didn't just think about the time that I was sitting in the chair talking to the people, the HR director and the line manager. 

I imagined myself from the minute I got up having a really easy day, getting up on time, having a nice breakfast, the public transport that I was taking. The bus arrived on time and I arrived at my destination sweat-free. 

I visualised being shown up to the room, sat down, and was fluent and relaxed. And then I got the job, and, you know, happy days. And guess what happened? I really did get that job, and I've been hooked on positive visualisation ever since.

Visualise the movie of your success

I think it's a really cool thing to do. It doesn't need to take up loads of time, but you do need to dedicate five or ten minutes to just sitting in a chair, hands on your knees, close your eyes, and just give yourself the movie of your success.

Now, a lot of people just jump to that time when they're on stage because it's the most terrifying bit, right? The moment you're performing, where the board members are all glaring at you. People jump to that because it is the most terrifying bit. But if you can give yourself a whole movie around it from start to finish, if it's going well in relation to the whole day, the bit that you're doing that's intense is reduced. But also, you've given yourself a stress-free, calm run-up to it and an enjoyment of it. 

So really, do those positive visualisations and breathe and enjoy and do it in a quiet space. That is a really neat trick for your success. And if you need to do it every day before your big thing, then do it every day for your big thing. It doesn't matter. It's much better than visualising it all going horribly wrong, isn't it?

Be prepared with your content

Thirdly, what I would say is be prepared with your content. So yes, you're going to work hard at what you're going to say, and yes, you're probably getting tangled with all of that, but hopefully, at one point, you'll line it out. Watch my Presentations Planner video to help you have a clear structure as to how to put together your content for your presentation and your talks. 

Practice. Have a strong start and a strong finish

Make sure you have a strong start and a strong finish, and the only way you can do that is to practice. Practice how you're going to begin and the first few minutes of what you're going to say, and then practice how you're going to finish off. Don't just end up on a damp squib like, "Well, that's me. Any questions? No." Be really strong about that and finish in a polished way, like a gymnast leaping off a bar at the end of a display.

2. During your presentation. Calming your nervousness

Now, the chunky bit, the middle bit, during your moment in the spotlight, whether you're around a board table having to deliver an update or at a conference trying to showcase your stuff from behind the podium and deliver a really good message, nerves are going to get to you at some point if you let them. 

There are a couple of things you can do to mitigate nerves in the moment of delivery. And this is the part everyone focuses on, isn't it? It's like, "Oh, when I'm on the stage, I'm going to feel so nervous. I'm going to get a red rash on my chest. My mouth's going to go dry. My voice is wobbly. My knees are knocking. Everyone will see the paper that I'm holding shaking. And it's just going to..." Okay, yeah, all of those things might happen. But there are a few things you can do to work around that and feel a bit better about it.

A smile will help you when you are nervous

Firstly, a really practical tip is just to smile. Now, the minute you smile, you're telling your body that everything's all right. Yeah. The opposite of smiling, of course, is going, "Oh, no." Try it now. What does it feel like when you're knitting your brow and saying, "Oh, I'm so nervous," versus when you're just relaxed and smiling? It's a different vibe altogether. So smile. If you do nothing else, smile. Plus, audiences love it when you smile because they want to know what you're smiling about. And, oh, they look like they're having a nice time. "I want to have a nice time with you." The same is true if you're talking to the board or junior colleagues. Warm, welcoming, and accessible. Regardless of who you're talking to, smile.

Move to disperse adrenalin in your body

Secondly, move. This addresses all of the fight, flight, or freeze instincts that adrenaline gives us. The jolt that goes do something, take action or run away, or fight. 

What you can do to tell your body again that you're dealing with that is to move. Now, is that possible in every setting? No, of course not. You can't get up and do some star jumps or run on the spot like you're running away from a woolly mammoth. But you can just pedal your feet underneath the desk to make it feel like you're walking, or you could move your hands a little bit down by your sides when you're waiting for your turn and things are getting a bit nervy. And that is the signal to your brain that you've got it covered. Yeah, I got it covered. I'm smiling and I'm moving. I've got this. You never know, that might just dissipate the physical sensations of nervousness.

The power of pause and reset

And then finally, a big thing you can do for yourself (and this isn't easy, so don't beat yourself up if you don't get this right or do it very regularly) is to pause. Now, pausing is never as long as you might experience it for. The people watching you taking part are never gonna go, "Oh, is she or he ever gonna speak again?" No, they're just gonna go, "Hm, they're very wise, aren't they? Having to pause like that with that big brain." 

So pausing is really cool. You can just pause for a moment while you reset. Reset your physicality, your energy. You can reset your brain as well when it's pacing, when it's going at a fast pace and racing through what you've got to say and thinking about what's next. 

So the power of silence for a moment is enormous for you and the people absorbing what you've got to say.

3. After your presentation. Calming nerves

Now, the final section of this is something that doesn't get paid enough attention to, and that is what happens after you've finished the big thing that you were getting nervous about. Three ways to look after yourself after the big thing you've done. 

Schedule recovery time

First of all, actually schedule in recovery time. Recovery time is important because although you're not exercising and running a marathon, etc. You are using a great deal of mental capacity when you're focusing on delivering content or taking part in something that adrenaline fuels and makes you feel nervous. Your adrenaline high might feel amazing that night, that afternoon after you've delivered, but the next day you might just feel a little out of sorts. You might even feel a bit blue, to be honest, and you can certainly feel a little bit tired.

So, schedule in recovery time. Make sure you get time for light duties. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to bounce out of bed the next morning and perform at your best.

Move to clear the adrenaline hangover

Secondly, you can move a little bit. Now, I used to do a bit of stand-up comedy. That is a lesson in how to recover from adrenaline. I used to feel adrenaline-poisoned after such a surge of adrenaline and nerves the night before. The only way I could shift it was to actually get my blood moving, get my heart rate up. That would include something like going for a gentle walk, going for a swim, or going for a little bike ride. Nothing too intense or serious. It kind of felt like it would shift things for me, and I would have a clearer head as a result. So get rid of your adrenaline poisoning.

And finally, reflect on what went well

And finally, after the event, there is no point just jogging on with your life as if nothing's happened. It really is an opportunity to reflect on what went well, what you learned, and what you could work on for next time. Again, we're back full circle to the script that you say to yourself. Oh, it went horribly wrong. I didn't say that bit. I missed the whole section on... You know the stuff. 

We don't want to be in that space of beating ourselves up about what we didn't do. So, again, I'll repeat: reflect on what went well, cheer yourself on, be your own cheerleader. "I did that really well." What did you learn? "Oh, I learned that the technology is not always going to support you," or "That slide doesn't really work after that slide, so I'm going to change that." And think about what you can work on for next time. 

It might be that you want to work on your presentation's content. It might be that you want to move away from using cards or even move away from using slides altogether. How might you do that? But you won't get a chance to look into any of those aspects unless you take time to reflect. 

So that's the final point. And I hope all of those points have been really useful to you in all of your nerve-inducing moments in the spotlight that you'll find yourself in. Good luck!