How Can I Help a Nervous Presenter?
Managers often come to us and ask how they can help their team members get a handle on the nervousness they experience when presenting. This isn’t surprising, of course, since this type of nervousness is a real issue for a lot of people. We all experience it differently and to varying degrees, but the reality is that being nervous is no fun. And that’s true for speakers as well as for audience members having to suffer through someone else’s nervousness.
Unfortunately there is no quick fix that will work for everyone. Nervousness is triggered by different things. For some, it’s audience size. For others, it’s who’s in the audience. Level of knowledge of the topic often plays a role. Many people have a broken record playing in their heads repeating some well-meaning feedback they received but have taken the wrong way. (“You should be more energetic.” “Smile more, you look mad.” “Don’t turn your back.”) For others the repeating voice is a self-critical one. “You said that wrong.” “That’s not how you rehearsed it.” “Crap, you forgot to mention X.” “They don’t think you’re smart enough.”
Who could be in control with all those thoughts swimming around?
So, when it comes to helping your employees manage their nerves, it has to start with helping them quiet the voices in their heads, gain control of their thoughts, and settle into the conversation. During everyday interactions they aren’t nervous. They’re engaged, and they zig and zag following the natural unrehearsed path of the conversation. A similar organic process should happen in presentations too.
Presentations need to feel like conversations
Understanding that key concept – that presentations should feel like conversations – is the first step toward managing nerves. It takes away the pressure of having to be perfect, having to say something just right. It also turns the focus of the interaction outward, away from self and toward others. When this happens, the presenter sees faces, responds naturally and settles into the conversation.
Of course, the conversation is mostly being led by the presenter, who has (hopefully) spent some time thinking about the goals of the presentation and the organization of it. The course the conversation follows, though, is in direct response to the feedback received from the listeners. If you can help your employees understand that the audience is a necessary part of the conversation—not passive observers of it—they’ll be on the right track.
Fueling the brain
I like to tell workshop participants, “your brain is a good one, but it needs fuel to be smart.” The fuel comes from a pause and a breath. Pausing gives the brain the time and energy it needs to do its job. Again, we do this naturally in everyday conversation.
Expect some resistance
When you bring this up to your staff, you should expect a little resistance. There are three issues they may have. First, they will want to know how long a pause should be. Second, they’ll probably say that they feel foolish when they pause. Finally, they will worry about the audience’s perception of a pause, “They will think I’ve lost my place.”
Each of these questions stems from the false notion that a presentation is a performance. It’s important to remind your employees that the presentations they deliver are not performances, they’re conversations. During a conversation, there are no rules about how long a pause should be. They just need to occur naturally as part of the process. When they do, they won’t feel foolish. During the pause, an engaged presenter will simply use the time to breathe and think about what’s to come. Finally, pauses are seldom awkward for audience members because they, too, are engaged in the conversation. During a pause they’re digesting what was just said and getting ready to hear what’s next.
So, bottom line: How can you help a nervous presenter?
- Help them understand that presentations are conversations, not performances. There’s no “right way” to do or say anything.
- Remind them that they’re speaking with people not at them. This will focus their attention on the individuals in the audience and remind them to look for – and respond to – audience reactions.
- Remind them to pause and breathe.
Managing nervousness isn’t something that can be conquered overnight. It takes time, experience, and a shift in traditional thinking. But it can be done. Your job, as manager, is to gently nudge your team along step by step, reminding them of the concepts outlined here.
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Written by Greg Owen-Boger
Greg Owen-Boger has been with Turpin Communication since 1995, first as a cameraman, then instructor, account manager, and now vice president. Schooled in management and the performing arts, Greg brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to the organization. Greg is one of Turpin’s facilitators and coaches. When he’s not with clients, he manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Greg is an active member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and was the 2015 President of ATD, Chicagoland Chapter. He is a popular speaker, frequent blogger, and the co-author of the book The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined. His latest book, also co-authored by Dale Ludwig, launched in 2017 and is entitled Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide for Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning.