Clammy hands, stomach knots, and an almost irresistible urge to run away: speaking in front of others, even when you have years of experience of doing it, can trigger symptoms of mild panic in the best of us. Here are my practical, road-tested tips for taking charge of your pre-presentation nerves. As with all good Scouts, the simple key is to be prepared!
Uncertainty breeds nervousness. Do as much of the thinking as you can before the day, including what you will be wearing. Decide on and lay out your entire outfit, including underwear and accessories, the night before. Ask yourself some questions: Will you wear different clothes to travel in? Which coat will be appropriate? Will you need a brolly? Decide all this type of thing in advance to save time and dithering on the day.
Your audience cares about your talk, not your travel problems. Arrive early and calmly: if you arrive late or just in the nick of time you will be flustered and look unprofessional. So know EXACTLY where the venue is- Google Maps is a fantastic resource for this- or you could go 'old school' and speak to whoever booked you.
Work out the practicalities of where you are going and how you are getting there, well in advance of the date you are speaking. Work out public transport routes, costings and timings. Make sure your information is up to date. If you are driving, make sure there's enough petrol in the car, use a route planner like the AA's, and if you are, like me, totally without any sense of direction, buy a good sat nav.
Check, double check and triple check your props and equipment. Make sure you have everything you need with you and get it in a logical order- the less thinking you have to do in situ, the better. For example. My talks are about historical costumes, so I pack them in a box or boxes in reverse order so that the last thing I pack is the first thing I'll need, ready at the top of the box, but the same trick would work for any other type of equipment, too. Check electrical stuff is working EVERY TIME. Take an extension lead. Take duplicates of hardware like CDs, back-up any digital resources on a memory stick...you get the idea. And take a bottle of water, one with a nozzle so you can't spill it over your equipment. And a packet of tissues (not loo roll if you can possibly help it)- if the room turns out to be cold you may get a runny nose, and sniffling will be distracting for your audience.
Know your subject, of course, that's obvious. But just as importantly, know your audience. Talk to whoever booked you to find out your audience's average age, their gender, and any other relevant information. What are their expectations of you? Do you represent an academic lecture or an end of year 'jolly'? For example I do my Queen Elizabeth 1 talk for school groups, U3A, women's groups, history societies, as an after dinner speaker...the list goes on, and no two talks are ever identical. Can you predict and prepare for the types of questions you may get? It's useful to prepare a stock phrase for moments when you don't know the answer, or if an audience member says something strange!
Preparation#5: Physical symptoms
Steps 1-4 should alleviate the main practical causes of pre-presentation stress. But if nerves persist, take five minutes just before your talk begins and use your body to relax psychologically. Deep breathing is SO effective. Find a private area (toilet/cupboard/your car- it doesn't matter). Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose steadily until your lungs are full. Hold it for the count of four, then slowly breathe out through your mouth. Repeat for as long as you can, but a minimum of three times.
If your pre-presentation adrenalin surge makes you shake, tighten your knees, scrunch up your toes and tense up your buttocks! Honestly! No one can see you do it, and it really works.
Dry mouth? Pause, and drink some water slowly. It may seem like a huge delay, but it won't be, it will gain you valuable thinking/calming time. If you drink too fast it will make you burp.
Preparation #6: Get Excited
Re educate yourself that what you're feeling, butterflies, sweaty hands etc, doesn't mean you're nervous but that you are EXCITED! Visualise a time when you felt fully confident, and recreate those feelings now. You wouldn't have been booked if people weren't interested in what you have to say; they have confidence in you, so do them a favour and have confidence in yourself. Exchange the word 'nervous' for the word 'excited'' - it really works!