Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.

—Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.

We’ve all had that “sick” feeling before an important presentation. While excessive pressure can undermine your ability to perform well, there are techniques to help you to enjoy, rather than dread, these situations.

Check Your Response

The “inverted-U” relationship between pressure and performance helps to explain why you can “go to pieces” under pressure. The sweaty palms, raised heart rate, and sense of agitation that you feel when you have to perform are the unpleasant side effects of the fight-or-flight response produced by intense pressure. Anxieties and negative thinking crowd your mind, your concentration suffers, your focus narrows, and you find it difficult to think clearly and perform well. So what can you do about overcoming this?

If you think you’re going to enjoy giving a presentation, you will give a good one, and your enthusiasm will be shared by your audience.

Techniques to Practise

Part of the stress that you feel comes from uncertainty about what is about to happen. By thinking through the event, you can understand and manage the doubts and uncertainties that may disrupt it.

There are some practical things that you can do before any performance, however small, or however much you are in control of it, to ensure that things go without a hitch.

  • Do some research on the situation or environment you will be performing in – if possible, visit it beforehand to familiarize yourself.

  • Find out some facts such as the size of your audience, what people will be expecting from your performance, and whether they will be well-disposed towards you.

  • Find out if the format will require you to prepare for audience questions.

  • Ask what technology will support your performance (lights, sound, projectors, etc.), and what preparations have been made in the event that the technology fails.

Turn It Around

It is worth remembering that stress, managed well, can actually give you a competitive edge. The goal is to find the level of pressure that corresponds to your area of peak performance and enter the “state of flow”, in which you are completely involved in an activity for its own sake and where you are using your skills to their limit. Many of the important techniques that help you to manage the performance stress that can disrupt this state of flow come from sport psychology – these are the mental techniques that help top athletes to deliver exceptional performances.

Think Smart

If you feel happy with your presentation you will feel confident about making it. If you’ve never made a presentation before, ask a friend to help you to prepare for it using a video camera.

Stand in front of your friend and make your presentation. When you have finished, play back the video together and make a note of things you could improve. Your friend will be able to give you an audience perspective. Amend your presentation and make it again, repeating the process until you are happy with it. This will help you to feel confident on the day of the presentation.

Rehearse Your Performance

Rehearsing for a stressful event, such as an interview or a speech, will polish your performance and build confidence. Practice also allows you to spot any potential problems while you have the opportunity and the time to eliminate them. The more you repeat what you are going to say and do, the smoother and more polished you will become and the better you will perform under pressure.

Be Prepared

For big events, it can be worth preparing a performance plan that helps you to deal with any problems or distractions that may occur and to perform in a positive and focused frame of mind. A plan such as this will give you the confidence that comes from knowing that you are as well prepared for an event as is practically possible. Make a list all of the steps that you need to take, from getting prepared for the performance, through packing, travelling, and setting up, to delivery and conclusion. Work through all of the things that could realistically go wrong and eliminate them by careful preparation.

Rehearse Thoroughly

A good rehearsal makes for a good performance and there are several things you can do to ensure that everything goes smoothly and according to plan.

Plan Your Speech

Rehearse until you’re completely fluent and comfortable with what you want to say. If you can, do this in the place where you’re going to perform. With enough rehearsal you’ll be eloquent under pressure.

Prompt Yourself

Write down your key points on postcards that you can hold and refer to if you lose your place during your presentation. People often won’t even notice if you’re holding something as small as a prompt card.

Research the Venue

If you’re going to show a video as part of your presentation, check that there’s a functioning remote-controlled video player and monitor at your venue, and have back-ups in place in case they don’t work.

Reduce the Event’s Importance

The more important an event is to you, the more stressful it is likely to be. This is particularly true when you are operating at a high level, when many people (especially family or important people) are watching, or when there is the prospect of a large financial reward, promotion, or personal advancement if you perform well. If stress is a problem under these circumstances, take every opportunity to reduce its importance in your eyes. Compare it with bigger events you might know of, or might have attended. Remind yourself that there may be other opportunities for reward later, and this won’t be the only chance you have. Focus on the correct performance of your tasks, and the importance of the event will fade into the background.

Get to Know the Venue

If the thought of making a presentation is making you feel very nervous, it is a good idea to reduce the number of unknown factors to a minimum. If it’s at all possible, visit the venue where you will be making the presentation so that you can establish where the podium and microphone will be and where you can set up your audio-visual aids. If you are speaking after a number of other speakers, ascertain from where you will be making your entrance. Stand where you will stand during your presentation and visualize a room full of people listening to everything you say.


If you make a mistake, don’t criticize yourself. It is now in the past, and there is nothing you can do about it.

5 Minute Fix

If you need to relax before a big event take a few minutes by yourself.

  • Sit comfortably with your eyes closed.

  • Take slow, deep breaths, inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for five seconds.

  • After 20 breaths, open your eyes and readjust to your surroundings.

Case Study: Preparing for Success

Maria was feeling very nervous. She’d just accepted an invitation to speak at a prestigious industry event, and now she was starting to panic about what she’d say.

Realizing that this would be a stressful event, and one that could go badly wrong if she was over-stressed, she planned and prepared carefully. Well before the event, she wrote her speech and polished it so that it was as good as it could be. She took plenty of time preparing her PowerPoint presentation and tweaking it so that it worked smoothly and well. She found out about the venue and the people attending. She prepared for possible eventualities and for difficult questions, and she rehearsed thoroughly. This improved her fluency, and made her feel confident that she’d find her words easily under pressure. After all of this, despite a small power surge while she was making her presentation, she gave the very best speech at the conference, in front of some of the most important decision makers in her industry.

  • Maria’s preparation gave her confidence that what she had to say was worth hearing, and meant that she wouldn’t have any last-minute self-doubt.

  • Because she was feeling so confident Maria was able to stay calm even when a few minor things did go wrong.

Review Your Performance

If you have prepared well, the event will go well, although there will always be things that you feel could have gone better. After the event, make a point of reviewing how things went, how well your preparation served you, how you handled any problems, and what could have been done better. Take confidence from the things that went well and give yourself credit for them. Learn from the things that didn’t go as well as you had hoped, and update your performance plan to reflect this. Don’t use this review as an opportunity to castigate yourself for everything that you think has gone wrong. In any event, it is unlikely that your audience even noticed the things that didn’t go according to plan. And, next time, you’ll be even better!

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