Top Tips from the Pitch School

Crushed by presentation anxiety? Top Tips for how to self-calm and boost your creativity too

17th February 2020, 3:13 pm

“Who has not sat tense before his own heart’s curtain?”


Nerves are natural. But anxiety is mostly self-created, with a third of us feeling excessive anxiety when asked to speak in front of others. Good news is most feelings of dread are drastically reduced by learning some simple self-calming techniques that also help you create compelling presentations.

Fear begins in your mind. Chemicals and hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, create feelings of anxiety. Self-calming creates a new awareness of what triggers your fears into ways to use your unique mind-body feedback mechanism to reduce nerves to manageable levels. My tips below reveal how to reframe your thinking and use your fear to improve performance.

One: Admit your fears to understand its sources.

Fear, like pain, signals something is wrong. You cut your finger. It hurts so you do something about it. Awareness creates attention and contains the solution – clean the wound and get a plaster.

Presentational fear travels mostly to your: mind; heart; or gut. Sit still for a moment. Let your fears and the feelings they generate about your presentation flow gently to see where they reside. In your head? A dominant or recurring negative thought perhaps? Is a strong emotion triggered by a heart-felt, life-long belief? Often it’s a negative feeling about your capabilities. Is it in your gut? A tightness in your stomach because of someone who will be there?

Two: Tap into your fears

Now you know where your fears live, let’s get some rent from them. List them:

  1. Intellectual: your mind
  2. Emotional: your heart
  3. Physical: your gut or chest, wherever pain emerges

For example, if you think you aren’t clever enough that’s intellectual. Impostor syndrome: “I’m not good enough. Today they find out.” that’s an emotional response. Gut feelings can be about a person, an organisation or place. Our thoughts affect our emotional responses. By seeing how beliefs trigger us we can re-evaluate those beliefs and reframe and retrain our thinking.

Now you have a list so you know more about what you are dealing with. The great thing about lists is you can tackle them in a sequence and over time. We call that a process.

Three: Use your fears to improve your creative process

Fear instinctively triggers a flight, freeze or fight response. But by deploying powerful self-calming strategies, like self-awareness, to capture your fears you soon discover what’s behind them.

Next, start reflecting positively on why you have been chosen for the presentation: your mind; you know important stuff others want you to share. You have emotional experience: you’ve done this before, know what it takes and what worries others may have about your topic. And your gut feeling can help you to decide what’s really important so you only talk about what’s relevant to your audience.

Four: Create a mood-board to get your ideas out of your head and on paper

Do this immediately you have a presentation. You don’t need anything fancy. A3 paper laid out landscape will do as a mood-board, now a standard business tool used to grow your ideas and content. Identify why you are doing the presentation, your motivation and the audience’s reasons for being there. What are you going to cover? How? Is it a powerpoint? Flip chart or a bit of both? Sketch, but don’t get too hung up on getting it right first time. Now you can share your ideas with another person; always a good idea.

Getting your ideas out of your head and onto paper reduces pre-presentation anxiety by 50%+ in my experience.

Five: Share your ideas early with a friendly colleague

And any remaining concerns with her over coffee or lunch. Share your mood board. Get a second opinion, refine it. Then set a fixed date for your walk through where you try out your first draft of the presentation. Practise serves three important purposes: it embeds the presentation in your memory; that reassurance helps to give confidence; and that makes it more natural to your audience. All this will reduce nerves. Get and use feedback. Do this at least twice..

Five: Accept fear is a normal response for public speakers

Speaking in front of others is right up there with fear of flying, spiders and snakes. You are not alone, in fact you are probably with the majority. Just admitting you are feeling nervous generally creates a positive response as we relate to that and your vulnerability. It also releases some of the fear in that moment. Anything now keeping you awake at night contains clues as to what you still have work on in your presentation. Now are using your sub-conscious to drive conscious improvements you are self-calming by taking action. We act our way into new thinking and it works on our fears.


Six: Get outside and exercise 24 hours before the presentation

The day before the presentation go for a walk in a park or, even better, a forest. Running, swimming, indeed any form of physical activity that gets you out of breath and lasts 20 minutes will help you to reduce anxiety. Knock the booze on the head too. Avoid alcohol the night before, it impairs sleep quality and does not reduce anxiety just represses it. Reward yourself if you wish with a treat afterwards.

Seven: Go green screen

Can’t get outside or exercise? Get your laptop out and watch a nature documentary or simply look at pictures of forests and green, verdant landscapes for a while. Even a minute will do the trick. And just thinking about green, outdoor spaces will have a similar calming effect.

Eight: Still feeling nervous on the day of the presentation?

Again, totally normal. Now it’s usually more in your body but this will affect your mind if you allow it. Classic symptoms will be sticky hands, shortness of breath, hot flushes and sweating. Nice! We can control these by some simple breathing exercises. Four breaths is a classic calmer. You could use it now. Find a quiet space. Stand or sit, doesn’t matter. Focus only on your breathing noticing your inhale and exhale. Now close your eyes. Gently, slowly but deeply exhale once. Now inhale the same way slowly, deeply, gently. Hold your breath for a moment. Repeat three more times. Instant calmer says Lennon.

Nine: Always warm up your voice, body and mind before you present

You wouldn’t dream of running in a race or playing competitive sports without warming up. Public speaking is a competitive event. You are competing against some version of yourself that you carry in your head, like the imagined performance you really want to deliver.

Always have water near you. Sip some. A dry throat is a normal fear reaction. Loosen you voice by saying: “HOW NOW BROWN COW.” loudly, stretching your jaws fully open and focusing on the consonants as much as the vowels. Loosen you limbs in turn moving your head gently in a circle and then shaking each arm and leg too. Repeat several times. If this makes you feel silly or foolish great. You have released an emotion you won’t take into the presentation.

Ten: Quick pre-flight check, then take off with your audience

Make sure your slides work and any notes are in the right order.

Smile, look directly at your audience left, right and centre so we all feel acknowledged by you.

Say good morning or afternoon, warmly welcoming us, thanking us for the gift of our time and begin with your intro. Remember your audience is with you and for you, grateful it’s you presenting today and not them.

Any remaining nerves will only last for seconds now.

Hold that thought and WOW them.

Finally, I love what the writer, James Baldwin says about fear:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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