nerves be gone!

Part 1 of our in-depth guide to overcoming nerves and delivering a power-packed performance, every time

table of contents

First things first

1. Introduction

Harness your presentation nerves

Have you ever sat there before a presentation and felt so nervous that your stomach is like a washing machine?

Maybe you’ve even wished that something⸺some mild emergency, that might trigger a fire alarm, perhapsxso you don’t have to open your mouth?

Well, you’re not alone.

Being nervous about presenting and speaking affects almost everyone who has ever stood in front of an audience of any size⸺whether it’s a thousand-person auditorium, or a handful of people in a meeting room.

Even the most experienced speakers are afflicted.

I once heard Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author who has delivered some of the most widely viewed TED talks of the past 20 years, talk about nerves about speaking.

He was in the green room before his first mainstage TED event and he turned around and noticed that he shared the room with the two people who were going on before him. They were two people who, according to Ferriss, were world-renowned in their fields, people of whom he himself was in awe.

And there they were, these two world-class performers, about to go out on stage, and both of them were green around the gills, tense and panicky, stricken with nerves before their big moment.

Nerves are universal. Therefore, nerves are normal.

So what can you do about them so they don’t have a destructive power over your ability to perform?

In this in-depth guide we will go through a few techniques that have helped hundreds of people we’ve worked with through one-to-one training over the past two decades.

But first, a few things quick about nerves that really deserve our attention.

Things we need to know

2. Four things everyone needs to know about performance nerves

Nervous about performing. Beyonce: "I am nervous when I don't get nervous."

As we’ve already noted, some of the world’s best presenters and performers admit to being nervous about getting out there in front of an audience.

Everyone from superstar music performer Beyoncé to Rugby World Cup winning Dan Carter have spoken about why being nervous about their performance have spurred them to their greatest performances.

If you suffer from nerves, here are five things to set your mind at ease … and stop your pulse from racing!

There is no question. Nerves can be debilitating.

With so much available to readers on how to control nerves, I felt it was important to share my experience of nerves from a different perspective.

By understanding a little more about nerves we can start to use them to our advantage.

I get nervous when I don’t get nervous. If I’m nervous, I know I’m going to have a good show.

I am a big believer that it is normal and healthy to feel nerves before any presentation. Some of the best presenters and performers I have worked with will admit to being nervous in front of an audience.

When clients tell me they “don’t get nervous”, I worry, why?

Because in my mind that is a sure sign their presentation may not succeed.

Being over-confident can often translate to boring, uninspiring and disconnected⸺and no speaker, at any level, wants to be associated with those labels.

1. Being nervous about performing means this is important to you

 

Often people perceive nerves as a weakness.

But as we’ve already shown in this guide, it pays to think about this differently.

What if we flip this on its head and think about it completely the opposite way?

I am convinced that feeling nerves is not a weakness, but the best sign that what you are doing is important to you.

Think about the last job interview or presentation you had.

If you were nervous, you also probably had a clear focus, a drive to succeed and a clear intention.

That counts for a lot.

2. Nerves mean you will strive to be the best you can be

 

Nerves mean the stakes are high.

You don’t want to screw it up.

In my experience, the one sure thing that happens when someone is experiencing performance nerves is that complacency gets completely removed from the equation.

Complacency is often our worst enemy in business, work and life.

If the stakes are high, you are very likely to prepare with that bit more focus.

You will rehearse a little more, put in a little more graft. Your preparation is unlikely to be undercooked.

And as a wise person once said, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”

Experiencing nerves removes complacency, and once complacency is gone, preparation is almost certain to receive the focus it requires.

And then, you are so much more likely to reap the rewards.

A healthy dose of nerves keeps you on your toes, keeps you focused and ultimately leads to a better presentation, pitch or performance.

3. Nerves pushes you into new territory

 

If you’re feeling nervous, then that means you’re not being safe.

When we try new things, when we make changes, we will always experience nerves⸺but if we don’t try new things, we will never know what we’re really capable of.

Here’s the thing.

People who do the same thing every day, people who are hesitant or even afraid to try new things probably do not suffer from nerves.

They never feel nervous because they never actually challenge themselves, and not challenging yourself is, I believe, a bigger weakness than being nervous.

Experiencing nerves is a sign that we’re actually living life to the fullest.

And that has to be worth something.

4. Forewarned is forearmed

 

In a 2013 study in the Clinical Psychological Science journal, half of the participants were told prior to having to present that they’d probably feel nervous about performing, but that sweaty palms and racing hearts, sweating were signs that their bodies were prepping for action.

The other half received no information.

The result?

Participants briefed about the benefits of nerves were less distracted by them and performed better.

So if we know to expect feelings of nervousness we can embrace them and harness the energy.

Conclusion: Embrace the Butterflies!

There is nothing wrong with having butterflies in your stomach, provided you make them fly in formation.

Nerves certainly mean an element of discomfort – no argument there!

We all know the feeling – the heart is pounding, palms moist, mouth like sandpaper. Our body’s natural response is thrown into overdrive.

What can happen is that we focus on the response – pounding heart, sweating palms – and get distracted from the task at hand.

If we are able to keep ourselves from turning our focus in on ourselves, then nervousness can be a helpful tool. Focusing on your surroundings and your audience during a presentation, rather than on the thoughts inside you, is the key.

With nerves, the adrenaline gives you a boost of energy. Actors use the adrenaline rush to take their performances to a higher level. This can be seen in their physical and vocal delivery – presenters can also harness this.

So, all in I think we need to accept that nerves are normal and natural. Yes there is discomfort and there are many ways to control them, but it is useful to challenge ourselves to look at nerves from a different perspective.

The day I lose my stage-fright is the day I will stop acting.

Thinking differently

3. The one-word mindset switch

As it turns out, changing one word could make a huge difference to your whole experience and performance in this area.

We associate the words “nerves” or “nervousness” with negative feelings, and even doom.

Instead of using them, we can instead switch them out for a word that connotes future success, opportunity, and forward movement.

Excitement.

If this sounds a bit too straightforward, consider this.

We use the word “nerves” to describe situations where our heart rate goes up, our bodies feel a bit tingly, our legs shake, we get a dry mouth, our breathing gets shallow, or our sweat glands open up on our palms or beneath our arms.

But here’s the thing.

These are exactly the same physical indicators that happen when we experience excitement.

Feeling the buzz

 

The heightened rush of energy associated with pre-presentation nerves is not a bad thing.

It is there for a reason: our body and brain know that we are about to do something that is outside our normal day-to-day realm of activity.

We get a rush of adrenaline to make us ready to respond to the situation at hand. It is up to us how we interpret this energy. We can see it as negative or positive.

Using a word like ‘excitement’ in place of ‘nervousness’ can have far-reaching impact.

It can quickly diffuse the bad thought patterns associated with the event and replace them with good, constructive ones.

Trust the science


Alison Wood Brooks is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.

She conducted a series of tests around positive talk and the effect it has on people’s state of mind and levels of anxiety during tasks such as singing karaoke,  taking a math test, or standing up to give a speech.

She had a percentage of her subjects say aloud beforehand: “I am calm”, or “I am excited”.

This might seem like a small thing but the effect it had on the subjects’ performances was evident.

Our brains are constantly hungry for information to process. Every second of every waking moment it is taking in stimuli and making sense of information and filing it away for future. We choose what to feed it; and what we choose to feed it makes a huge difference as to how we handle heightened situations of communication.

In the study, Wood Brooks wrote: “Unlike anxious versus calm feelings, which differ in high versus low arousal, anxiety and excitement are arousal congruent, and minimal interventions may be sufficient to produce feelings of excitement.”

Self-talk strategies, she continued, “lead people to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mindset (as opposed to a threat mindset), and improve their subsequent performance. These findings suggest the importance of arousal congruency during the emotional reappraisal process.”

Your body knows best

 

In Wood Brooks’s experiment, the people who told themselves “I am excited” outperformed those who told themselves “I am calm” or who said nothing at all.

The people who told themselves they were excited reported actually feeling excited.

Trying to tell ourselves we are calm doesn’t work, writes Brooks, because being calm is a low arousal state and being anxious is high. They are two opposite states of being, therefore it requires a lot of mental energy to flip from one to the other. That’s why “Keep calm and carry on” seems almost comical.

Anxiety and excitement are both high arousal states, therefore it takes less mental energy to flip from one to the other.

Another reason excitement can help in our performance is that associating excitement with a task like public speaking (as opposed to nervousness or even panic) can help to change the way we view stressful tasks.

When we pump ourselves up, we associate high energy and a good buzz with presenting or speaking publicly.

These situations become an opportunity rather than a threat.

In order words, in many ways we are what we think we are.

This might seem like a small change — a change more than anything in how you think — but this will bring you significant dividends in the quality of your overall experience.

You may not only feel more calm and confident but you might actually enjoy the experience of presenting or communicating publicly.

We all want to enjoy our time up there.

None of us relish shaking or sweating our way through a presentation or talk, rushing through our words just so we can get to the end and sit down again!

So the next time you have to give a presentation, try thinking this and saying it out loud:

  • “I’m excited!”
  • “I have something to give!”
  • “I am buzzing!”

This simple exercise can drown out the negative thoughts about your presentation, sales pitch or conference address.

When you change your thinking, you can change your performance and achieve the results you want.

So get excited, and carry on!

What would Adele do?

4. What we might learn from one of the world’s greatest performers

Performance Nerves

Adele, the British singer-songwriter, has one of the most impressive resumé in showbusiness.

As of 2020, she has collected 15 Grammy Awards, 18 Billboard Music Awards, nine Brit Awards, five American Music Awards, and two Ivor Novello Awards for Songwriter of the Year. All on their lonesome in her trophy cabinet are just the one Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award.

But guess what?

She has admitted she suffers so much from nerves that she actually gets physically sick before concerts.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Adele said:

“I get shitty scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile-vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.”

So how does she keep going? How does she perform on stage night after night?

The answer might not seem easy, but it is fairly simple: she has learned to manage her nerves!

“I just think that nothing’s ever gone horrifically wrong,” she says. “Also, when I get nervous, I try to bust jokes. It does work … My nerves don’t really settle until I’m offstage.”

Overcoming the physical symptoms of performance nerves can be very difficult but the good news is, it can be controlled both by managing your expectations and by using your nervous energy to your advantage

Another thing about Adele. She says she is spurred on by her desire to give give her fans a memorable evening.

“The thought of someone coming to see me and saying ‘Oh, I prefer the record and she’s completely shattered the illusion’ really upsets me. It’s such a big deal that people come give me their time.”

For “fans”, why not insert clients, or prospects, your team or board of directors? Whoever your audience is, they’re out there in front of you. They’re ready to listen.

Remember that experiencing nerves, and using them to your advantage, helps you give them a performance to remember.

Conclusion: Embrace the Butterflies!

 

And the final word goes to the Lady herself

What not to do

5. Seven things every presenter should stop doing right now

presentation skills advice

1. Stop! Do not open Powerpoint

 

Ditch the Powerpoint and get pen and paper out instead.

Making Powerpoint your first port-of-call keeps you from thinking about what you actually want to achieve in your presentation.

If you default to Powerpoint you route your thoughts and ideas through the tool.

It’s much better to get your thoughts and ideas clear first, and then figure out the stories or narrative you can tell to illustrate them.

And that may well, at some point further along, include Powerpoint. But that’s not the place to start.

2. Stop thinking about yourself

 

Sure you’re nervous, but the thing is, it’s not about you.

Let me say that again, because it’s important.

It’s not about you.

Focus instead on your audience.

What do they care about? Why are they here? How do you want to make them feel?

When your mind is on the people in front of you, and you have a clear intention to help them engage, listen and understand, then your message⸺and your confidence in your message⸺is going to be so much stronger.

3. Stop waffling

 

Too many people choose to chuck lots of information at their audience, in the hope that something will stick.

I’ve seen this all too often.

That hope⸺that with a bit of luck, or on the law of averages, or even with the help of divine inspiration, something I say might resonate with my audience⸺is almost always a vain hope.

Instead, focus your thoughts on the following questions.

  • How will I get the attention of my audience?
  • How do I plan to keep their attention?
  • How might I help them remember what I want them to remember?

Thinking about these questions in advance, really thinking about them, helps to reduce all waffle to zero. And that’s a good thing for everyone.

4. Stop rehearsing silently in your head

 

It’s something we all do.

Whether we intend to or not, we are always visualising scenarios, and seeing how things might play out.

But when it comes to performing before a room, on camera, or on a stage, the key thing is this.

What can sound very well in your head may not sound well spoken aloud.

To reduce your nerves when public speaking you must hear yourself aloud.

And you have to hear yourself several times. Ideally, standing up.

Cycle through this a number of times, and your chances of a confident delivery will skyrocket.

5. Stop panicking about the Q&A

 

Based on the subject of your presentation, it’s a good idea to spend a little time anticipating the sort of questions you might get, write them down and prepare a few answers in advance.

You can’t control the questions you’re asked, but you do have lots of control over how you respond.

It’s a good idea to prepare how you might respond to a question that comes completely out of left-field.

After that, just go with the flow. The Q&A is an opportunity to have a conversation. It does depend on the topic or your industry sector, but generally it’s probably unlikely it will turn into a personal interrogation.

6. Stop leaving things to chance

 

Take ownership for your public speaking opportunity⸺and give yourself the best possible chance of a performance you can be proud of⸺by anticipating anything that could possibly go wrong.

Here’s an initial checklist:

  • What is the layout of the room?
  • Have I gathered all the materials I require?
  • Have I checked (and double-checked!) the technology, its compatibility with your laptop, a backup USB stick, etc.

7. Stop panicking

 

If you follow the first six tips here, it will give you a lot more ownership of your opportunity to present.

Taking ownership of everything relating to your performance will give you a sense that you have a lot more control, and that will reduce any nerves you might feel.

After that, it’s time to start enjoying your public speaking opportunity and start connecting and engaging a happy audience.

Learning from the masters

6. Lessons from the Roman empire

Mark Twain is purported to have said,

“There are two kinds of speakers in the world: Those who get nervous and those who are liars…”

As we’ve shown so far, Twain is on the money. Everyone — everyone! —gets a dose of presentation nerves. Some just hide it better than others.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is regarded as one of the greatest orators in history. He lived in the first century BC, in the late Roman empire, and his influence on public speaking is so great that there’s a picture of him at the top of the Wikipedia entry on public speaking, and a software program named after him helps people craft better speeches.

The ancient Romans called the art of oratory actio, as in ‘acting’.

A speaker is an actor, and the best actors are the ones who are most truthful, convincing, and authentic on stage.

These ancient orators also knew about nerves — legend has it that Cicero once ran from the forum where he was set to speak because he was terrified with nerves.

But they also knew how to harness those nerves, and that, if channeled properly, that energy can give your performance passion, charisma, and memorability.

People won’t be able to take their eyes off you and they may not even know why.

Here’s Cicero’s Five Canons, and how they can help you knock it out of the park even when you’re feeling like you can’t even suit up to bat.

  • Invention
  • Style
  • Memory
  • Arrangement
  • Delivery

Let’s go through each one in turn

1. Invention, aka Your hook

 

This is the nugget of what you want to say.

It’s the distilled essence of what your speech or presentation is all about and why people should listen.

To get numeric about this, there are a few practical rules of thumb to apply to your “Invention”, or hook.

  • Write it out. It should be about 40 words or less.
  • It should take no more than 12 seconds, roughly the length of a human breath, to speak
  • It should be no more than one sentence

That’s it.

Brevity is beauty. Keep it short, keep it simple, and audiences will love you for it.

2. Arrangement, aka Your roadmap

 

Before you open Powerpoint, take the time to sit down and map out your story.

Every speech or presentation is a story, and stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Put another way, the beginning is the exposition, where the detail of the story is introduced; the middle is the climax, which is where there’s some conflict or tension or turning point; and the end is the resolution, where things are resolved, ideally nice and neatly.)

Once you’ve got the stages of the narrative clear, now it might be time to open PowerPoint and see what you need to support and illustrate your message.

Consider only adding things that will give colour, texture, and memorability to your story.

It’s worth repeating: story first, presentation software later.

This ensures you are clear in your journey, the roadmap, the arrangement of your speech, talk, presentation or pitch.

And most importantly, it will help you avoid using Powerpoint as a crutch.

3. Style, aka “Your Obama”

 

Everybody has their own style and in order to develop that style, watch as many people as you can give presentations and speeches.

As you watch, consider the following questions:

  • What are they doing well?
  • How are they using variations in pace?
  • How are they using techniques such as pause, or pitch, or volume?

Observe what they’re doing that works and, equally importantly, what you think does not work.

Steal from the best and leave the rest.

As you practice and record yourself on video, you’ll begin to discover and develop your own style.

No two speakers are the same, so don’t worry about being like someone else. Remember, it’s about being the best YOU, not becoming someone else.

YouTube and TED are great sources.

I know for a fact that most people use these platforms as a source of enjoyment or entertainment or inspiration, but with the right mindset, they are exceptional⸺not to mention free⸺resources for you to educate and train yourself to become the most charismatic speaker you can be.

Obama had his critics as a President, but as a speaker he has had few equals over the past half-century.

We can’t all be Obama, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him.

4. Memory, aka “Your palace”

 

Presentation nerves are often brought on by that fear of forgetting.

Mnemonics is the learning of techniques to aid in human memory. A mnemonic device could be an acronym or image that helps you to associate information and recall it more efficiently.

Roman orators such as Cicero used the technique of recalling a palace or great house with many rooms.

As they prepared for their delivery, they attributed sections of their speeches to different rooms, in order to more easily remember the information.

5. Delivery, aka “Your superhero”

 

Just before the big moment, after you’ve done your warm-up, the final thing you need to do is stand with your feet wide apart and hands on hips, a la Superman/Wonder Woman, and smile.

It will help banish those presentation nerves and give you a sense of expansion, of positivity, and of being grounded.

Then, picture your audience, send out a thought of generosity towards them⸺it’s no harm at all to say to yourself, “I love you, guys!”⸺and make it all about them, and much less about you.

So take it from the guys who started it all.

Take heed of Cicero and put “the five canons” to work for you, your company and your career.

If it's good enough for Branson...

7. How Richard Branson overcomes performance nerves

Richard Branson on Public Speaking

Okay, so we went back a couple of thousand years just now.

Let’s bring it right back up to date.

What comes to mind when you hear the words “Richard Branson”?

If I asked a hundred people, I’m pretty sure I’d get many answers like “billionaire” or “Virgin”.

Not many people might immediately think “stagefright”, but Branson has spoken openly about suffering from nerves when he gets up in front of an audience.

Nerves and anxiety affect pretty much everyone at some point, whether you’re speaking to an audience of thousands or one-to-one in the boardroom.

Much of the time it is not a case of eradicating those feelings but managing them and mastering them.

Remember, great presenters and speakers are not born, they’re made. And the making comes with a lot of work and preparation.

Here are three of Branson’s favourite tips on overcoming nerves and succeed in any speaking engagement, as he outlined in an article featured on Fortune.com.

Richard Branson’s Public Speaking Role Models, #1: Gavin Maxwell

 

When you need to speak in front of a crowd, close your mind to the fact that you’re on a stage with hundreds of people watching you and instead imagine yourself in a situation where you’d be comfortable speaking to a group.

For example, imagine that you’re in your dining room at home, telling a story to friends over dinner.

I know it sounds a little corny, but try it.

This trick has certainly removed some of the anxiety for me.

Richard Branson’s Public Speaking Role Models, #2: Winston Churchill

 

Churchill once said:

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

Take this advice to heart.

Even highly gifted speakers like Churchill would never ask an audience to listen for more than 25 minutes or so.

Extending a presentation beyond half an hour will stretch any group’s attention span.

Richard Branson’s Public Speaking Role Models, #3: Mark Twain

 

Twain was aware of the common misperception that in order to be a great speechmaker, one must be good at speaking off the cuff.

He addressed this in 1899 when, speaking at a dinner given in his honor at London’s Whitefriars Club, he said:

“Impromptu speaking — that is a difficult thing. I used to begin about a week ahead, and write out my impromptu speech and get it by heart.”

Throughout the piece [link here; may be paywalled], Branson talks about a couple of his best loved tricks to beat the jitters and where his inspiration comes from in handling those nerves.

And finally, remember the wise words of Soren Kierkegaard:

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.

Techniques to practice

8. Four techniques to help you harness presentation nerves so they work to your advantage

presentation nerves

There is endless advice available on how to overcome presentation nerves.

For many people fear of speaking in public ranks higher than fear of spiders or even death.

The problem⸺according to Jeremy Jamieson, psychology professor at the University of Rochester⸺is that we tend to think all nerves and stress is bad.

“Before speaking in public, people often interpret stress sensations, like butterflies in the stomach, as a warning that something bad is about to happen,” he writes.

“But those feelings just mean that our body is preparing to address a demanding situation, The body is marshalling resources, pumping more blood to our major muscle groups and delivering more oxygen to our brains.”

How our body reacts to social stress is exactly the same ‘flight or fight’ response it produces in response to actual physical danger.

The good news is that we can actually use these responses to help us perform. So if presentation nerves raise their head here are some ways to use it to your advantage

Get Your Preparation In Early

 

Don’t wait until a few days before your talk to get started.

Allow those presentation nerves spur you into action by seizing the earliest opportunity to prepare.

We’ve already noticed that those who fail to prepare are preparing to fail.

Preparation is critical.

Getting started is the most important step. Things can seem so much bigger in our heads than they are in reality. So start as early as you can, and go from there.

Know Your Content

 

Presentation nerves are more likely to kick in if you are not fully confident about your content.

Make sure you thoroughly understand your topic.

If you have stats in your presentation, understand the stats. Understand what they mean. Interpret them. Determine what call to action they suggest.

The objective is not to use everything you know. It’s to know as much as you can about your specific subject matter, so that you’re prepared for any questions⸺or even curveballs⸺that might come your way.

Practice your delivery

 

Rehearse your talk out loud as often as you can.

Perfection is either impossible or over-rated, so we’re not sure about practice making perfect, but there’s no doubt that practice has an outsized impact on your performance.

Even if your content doesn’t have all the bells and whistles and whizzbangs that you’d like, practising the content you have can make all the difference.

Next, practice it again, but this time, record it.

Watch or listen back with a critical eye and ear, preferable with a pen and paper to note down anything that jumps out.

Then you can both see and hear how you come across and make any changes necessary.

Prepare your answers

 

Being put on the spot can be a nerve wracking experience, especially in front of a crowd.

Make a list of likely questions you’ll receive, and prepare your answers. If you don’t know the answer to a question, please don’t be afraid to say something like “I’ll need to get back to you on that.”

Sometimes people are afraid of using the words “I don’t know”.

But mark my words.

Trying to garble through an answer while not knowing will be much worse for everyone.

Remember that even the most consummate and experienced performers experience performance nerves, so don’t let them cripple you. Instead let them keep you sharp!