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Presentation Nerves & Solutions To Overcome Them


By Peter Watts, Writer, Coach & Trainer, The Presenters' Blog

{#/pub/images/trainingProgram.jpg}Beating presentation nerves can seem like a battle; a no-holds-barred FIGHT to overcome your fears. Bosses and colleagues, like drill sergeants, urge us from the trenches and up onto the no-mans land of the stage.


“Your team needs you. Get out there soldier!”


This approach is completely wrong.


First point to be aware of: Presentation nerves can never be eliminated, and it would not be desirable to do so. Controlled nervous tension can promote excellence.


Second point to be aware of: The tangible bodily sensations that come with presentation nerves can be easily managed if we understand the mechanics that create them.


That’s what this article will help you to do. I’m not going to tell you how to beat presentation nerves, because I believe that as a natural bodily reaction we should work with our jitters, not against them. When we focus on beating nerves we just drive them deeper into our psyches. Instead, we can understand them, and adopt simple measures that make presenting a significantly easier process.


Do any of the following affect you when presenting?

  • Tightness of breath

  • Rapid heart-rate

  • Sweating

  • Blushing

  • Cold or clammy hands

  • Trembling

  • Butterflies in the stomach

  • Nausea

  • Tension headaches

  • Loss of concentration

  • Dry-throat

  • Scratchy voice

  • Low self-esteem


If yes, then within this article, you will find practical measures that work with your body to overcome those reactions. Just scroll through each topic and we will take you to the best remedies you can find.


Breathing Yourself Calm

Presentation nerves are a form of panic attack known as “Fight or Flight”. Evolved to keep our ancestors safe in their prehistoric world, it now generates the unpleasant sensations we suffer when faced not with predators, but presentations.

People report a standard palette of reactions, some of which you will share:


  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Cold, clammy hands
  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Light-headedness
  • Trembling and loss of concentration


To manage nerves, it helps to understand their mechanics. Click on this link for an explanation of Fight or Flight on StressStop.com.


We can control nerves rather than be controlled by them. The most effective way to do this is through managing our breathing so that we help the heart to maintain its normal speed rather than hurtling off in a presentation rush.


During Fight or Flight, the heart accelerates to pump more oxygen around the body. Breathing meanwhile moves from stomach based, to chest based, becoming shallower in the process. So, just as the heart races to pump more oxygen, the lungs bring in less, making the heart beat faster to oxygenate vital muscles. As the heart’s oxygen demand outpaces supply, blood pressure increases. Sweating and looking flushed are common responses.


Slow the heart and those other reactions slow down with it; sweating stops and telltale blushing reduces. Cool the demand for oxygen and you cool overheating. The solution therefore; take a big deep breath.


Focus attention onto breathing out, completely emptying your lungs of stale air and creating capacity for deeper breaths in response.


Here is the process:

  • Slowly breath out for as long as you can
  • When you can breath out no more, push out three extra puffs, totally emptying the lungs
  • Roll back your shoulders, opening the chest cavity as wide as possible


  • Relax! Let your body naturally pull in the deepest breathe you’ve inhaled in weeks!


Two more like this, and you will be fully oxygenated. You might even notice a mild dizziness. Our brains burn oxygen, and you’ve hit yours with more oxygen than it’s had in months. Net result, head-rush!


Your heart meanwhile slows down, and as the heart relaxes, you relax.


You are back in control. This is how professional presenters remain calm in front of the biggest audiences.


Control your breathing, and presenting becomes significantly easier.


Calming The Butterflies

Lepidoptera Stomachus, or “Butterflies in the Tummy” can invest our stomachs with a fluttering, pulsing, almost electrical life of their own.


Frequent presenting is a great way to lose weight. The person scheduled to speak after lunch can be easily spotted – they’re the one not eating at the buffet as their blood sugars, essential for concentration, plummet down to their socks.


Under “Breathing Yourself Calm” we discussed the importance of oxygen to the presenter. Here, we’ll consider the role of calories.


During Fight or Flight our appetite is suppressed. After all, if you’re nose-to-nose with a predator, then now isn’t the time for a light snack; not unless you want to be the light snack! If you’ve been stressed about presenting for the past few hours (days?) then you haven’t been eating.


Our bodies and brains need calories to function. Even if we’d like to lose weight and are tempted to regard loss of interest in food as a good thing, not eating will sap energy, reduce concentration, and contribute to tension headaches and trembling limbs.


Eat within two hours of your presentation. You may not feel hungry, but you must maintain the body’s fuel supply. If it’s only 30 minutes till show time then the emergency food of choice is the banana. Bananas, as any athlete will tell you, is power food. High in natural sugars, they quickly digest for an ideal pre-presentation snack.


Avoid the following:

  • Dairy products (They stimulate mucus and congest the voice)
  • Red meat (Hard to digest and energy sapping)
  • Citrus (Acidity when you’re stressed upsets the stomach)
  • Beans (You figure it out!)


While it would be a mistake to eat a heavy meal immediately before a presentation, it’s equally wrong to starve yourself. When stressed, your body’s natural hunger signals are shut-down. Maintaining calorie intake therefore becomes a rational process, consciously taking care of your physical need for sustenance.


“Have I eaten today?” If the answer is no, then ensure that you do. You’ll find that miraculously, you feel better prepared for the challenge ahead.


Dealing With Dry Mouth

Something peculiar happens to the throat while public speaking; its moist lining is replaced by sandpaper, and the voice, that essential presentation tool, asphyxiates to a rasp.


In the same way that it’s important for presenters to manage food intake, it’s also important to be aware of water intake, while avoiding caffeinated drinks such as coffee, which actually inhibit the ability to speak clearly. It’s a cruel twist that even though presentation nerves suppress our appetite for food, our appetites for caffeine become unquenchable. Even light coffee drinkers develop a conjoined relationship with the nearest coffee cup!


As well as acting as vocal lubricants, liquids swiftly enter our blood stream, so it’s important to be aware of what they do for us and to us during presentations:



A dry throat caused by tension needs to be relieved by sipping water. Have your water close at hand during your presentation and always carry your own small bottle with you, just in case water isn’t provided.


You’ll find the reassurance of simply knowing you have a source of water nearby reduces the risk of your voice drying out.


Hot Drinks

Hot drinks are frequently offered to us pre-presentation, and can be very calming. Caffeinated drinks however should be avoided for three reasons:

  • Caffeine is a stimulant and more stimulant to top up your adrenalin is the last thing you need.
  • Caffeine tenses the vocal chords so the voice tires more rapidly.
  • Caffeine is diuretic. You may feel like you’re taking in liquid, but it’s actually making you expel far more than you retain.


 De-caffeinated drinks are fine, and many presenters drink plain hot water if it’s easily available.


Energy Drinks and Sodas

AVOID! Soda is gassy, and when presenting, gassy is never good. I once discovered this for myself when attached to a radio microphone in front of 300 people at a trade show!


Energy drinks meanwhile contain enough caffeine to wide-eye a stallion. They might be promoted as “natural stimulants”, but so are many class A drugs, and those aren’t recommended either! Remember the balance of stimulants already racing round your body. Avoid adding others to the mix.



Sadly, alcohol is in the never-before-a-presentation category. Even a single glass of wine will interfere with your judgment. This needs to be kept in mind especially for anyone who is after-dinner speaking.


That rosy glow of contentment is best experienced after your presentation, not during!


No Sweat

The visual opposite of confidence, is sweat. As dark rings blossom beneath the armpits, a statement of “Nervous” telegraphs to the audience. Simple steps can prevent this happening.


Nervousness isn’t the only reason we sweat when presenting; the explanation can be as simple as the temperature of the room we find ourselves standing in. We have come from one temperature zone outside the building, passed through another in the lobby, and then hit a third as we entered the conference room. These temperature fluctuations conspire with our heightened nervous state to make us perspire.


Sweating is something that as presenters we should anticipate and manage.  

Wear a light t-shirt against your skin to act as a blotter. V-necks are best, and they must be short sleeved so the armpit is completely covered. The classic round-necked, no sleeve variety will fail in the sweat-test by not offering all-over blotter protection. Choose the lightest, thinnest fabric available so heat escapes, while sweat remains hidden.


What about the face and forehead? For these areas, keep three things in mind:

  • Rushing to your presentation will literally make you hot, flushed, and sweaty. Be in the room at least 15 minutes ahead of time so you can acclimatize and cool down.

  • Your grandmother was right when she told you to always carry a clean handkerchief! Even though your forehead is not nearly as sweaty as you might think (a single bead of sweat can feel like a gushing torrent), it will help your confidence if you can give your brow a quick dab just to make sure. Why a handkerchief and not a tissue? Because tissues can disintegrate and it has been known for presenters to go through a whole presentation with fragments of tissue stuck to their foreheads!

  • Facial sweating stops once we start speaking. If you become aware of perspiration then keep going, it will pass.


Breaking into a sweat is a natural, if slightly unpleasant aspect of presenting that needs to be managed rather than cured.


Dress for sweat! Choose clothes that are comfortable, cool, and concealing. Place a blotter layer against your skin. Have a handkerchief to hand just in case.


Finally, allow yourself plenty of time. The calmer you are, the cooler you’ll be.


Cold Hands

Hold a warm cup of tea. Or coffee. Or hot chocolate. It doesn’t matter. Hold a warm cup, and as you savor the heat radiating into your hands, a wonderful sense of calm comes with it.


Do this shortly before a presentation and you’ll get exactly the same reaction. Stress seems to mysteriously drain out of you.


There is a whole lexicon of words such as “toasty” that evoke the pleasure of warm hands and feet, and there is a physiological reason why we’ve developed them.


When we become nervous about something, presenting for example, one of the first physical symptoms is cold hands. As we enter fight or flight, our body diverts blood flow away from extremities such as the hands, and redirects it to the vital organs of the core. Because of this we develop the cold clammy hand sensation associated with presentation nerves.


This sets off a chain reaction. Our subconscious mind says to itself “Hello. I appear to have cold hands right now. I get cold hands when I’m nervous. Therefore I must be nervous, and being aware of that fact, am going to become even more nervous.”


If cold hands represent a state of nervous tension, then warm hands represent the exact opposite: relaxation. When we have warm hands, the mind associates this with a state of calm and safety, hence all the snuggle type language we have referring to the pleasantness of warm paws.


Knowing this, we can use a simple technique that I call “The Thawed Paws Pause” to trick our mental wiring into calmness pre-presentation.


Next time you are going to present, accept the offer of a hot drink. The contents of the cup are of secondary importance, but if you have a choice, then my recommendation would be something that is caffeine-free.


As you await your time to present, hold the cup and concentrate your mind on that lovely warmth entering your hands. Your mind is about to get a surprise, in that your internal dialogue is going to go something like this:


“I’m about to make a presentation. I get stressed when I make presentations, and when I get stressed I have cold hands, but hang on a moment! I have warm hands! When I get stressed I have cold hands, but right now I appear to have warm hands! Ah, I therefore can’t be stressed.”


As your subconscious plays with this concept, the body starts to stand down some of the reactions we associate with presentation nerves, and a degree of those stage fright jitters slip away.


It’s a simple trick, and one of the earliest I was taught when I first started presenting.


Next time you feel stressed or nervous, check the temperature of your hands. Icy? Take a moment to hold a warm cup. Feel tension melt into your thawed paws pause.


I Think, Therefore I Am

The philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”. For presenters, this line of wisdom is extended to:

“I am what I think”


Start a presentation thinking “I’m confident and I’m prepared”, and your session unfolds in accordance with that thought. Nerves diminish, and you move easily from point to point. Go into a presentation thinking “I don’t want to do this and I can’t remember what I’m meant to be talking about”, and you’ll find that this too will come to pass!


What we tell ourselves is our reality before a presentation, all too easily becomes our reality during the presentation.


This is the same world as that inhabited by professional athletes. What words go through the mind of an athlete as they line-up at the start of a race? Words that focus on victory, or words that focus on defeat?


If an athlete focused on the message “I’m going to come out of these blocks, surge forward ten steps, and then trip over my own feet and go flat on my face” this self-destructive mantra would become a self-fulfilling prophesy.


Professional sports people visualize success and maintain a continuous inner-dialogue that supports that vision. As presenters we have that same inner dialogue.


What is yours telling you about presenting? Is it positive or negative? Passionate or pessimistic?


Be aware of what your inner voice is telling you. Challenge negatives and praise positives. If the voice predicts doom, then challenge back with success. If the voice says “You’re going to fail”, then say back “I’m going to succeed!”


Remember pro-athletes and what works for them. The same sports psychology techniques also work for us!

“I think therefore I am”


I am therefore, what I think


Puncturing Perfectionism

Take a look at the following quote from Nandan Nilekani, head of the software company Infosys. He’s speaking in a 2008 interview for New Yorker magazine about the author Thomas Friedman:


“What I learned from Tom is speed……. I realized, when you have a story to tell you can’t dither over it for years and years – you’re going to be obsolete. That’s why I refer to him as an intellectual entrepreneur: the entrepreneur succeeds because they get an idea and then they move faster than the rest, they bring the product to market.”


When we have something to say, it is born of “Now”. We might have just come up with the solution to a business problem, or a winning sales pitch, or have something important to say on a community matter. Nilekani is pointing out that these ideas are best served fresh.


Delay and they go past their sell-by or get sold by someone else.


So why do many of us often hesitate when given the chance to speak in public?


The reason is often perfectionism. The capable speaker allows themselves to slip into being the panicky perfectionist. We procrastinate, we second-guess ourselves, we despair about every getting everything right, and before we know it, the moment to speak has been lost.


Each time this happens, a divot of hesitation lands in our psyche. Over time these divots grow from molehill to mountain. As each subsequent chance to speak arises, we face a growing divot-mound of past hesitations. Falter again and yet another muddy clod will fly through the air to join the others.


Woody Allen is reputed to have said:

“80% of success is in just showing up.”


This is nowhere truer than of public speaking. Becoming an effective public speaker is a journey 10% learning and 90% practical experience.


Perfectionism halts that journey before it’s even begun.


Next time you have something to say, try to get on up and say it!  It might not initially feel natural or comfortable, but know that next time it will be easier, and every time after that become easier still. Each time you find your voice you smack one of those divots back out onto the fairway where it belongs.


While preparation is good, over-prepping to the point of panic is not.


Sometimes we need to take on the challenge and just do it!


Taking The Plunge

 “Apprenticeship should not be put off, for fear grows upon us day by day. What we must attempt appears continually more alarming, and while we are deliberating when we will begin, we find that the time for beginning is past.”


These words were written 2000 years ago as guidance for young Romans starting out on their careers as public speakers. They remain true for us today. Whether your challenge is to speak to a more senior audience, or is simply to speak at all, the time for doing it is now!


Public speaking is often like jumping into the sea during that first day at the beach. You have to nerve yourself for the shock of the cold, but once in the water, you find it’s not as freezing as you feared. The quotation reminds us that the longer we hesitate, the harder it becomes to make that plunge. We must break the shock barrier, and enter the water.


The entry is sometimes forced upon us. For example, the boss may tell us we have to make a presentation next week. If no such catalyst occurs, we have to find that starting point for ourselves and create our own opportunity:

  • offer to make a presentation to your colleagues or team

  • present new products or services to an existing customer

  • offer to take part in a presentation to a new customer

  • give a talk in a social, political, or church group to which you belong

  • join the Toastmasters organization which develops speakers around the world


The cultures of the world offer maxims such as “a journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single foot-step”. These all tell us the same thing; “take the plunge, make it happen”.


You are a confident presenter. You need to give yourself the chance to find that out!


Come on in, the water’s lovely!


Coaching Yourself After A Presentation

When I train presenters, I sometimes start by offering each participant a whip and a five-minute break; if anyone’s in the mood they can pop outside and give themselves a good thrashing. “Go ahead, have fun!”


Of course, participants greet this suggestion as ludicrous. So why then do so many of us insist on giving ourselves the most monumental thrashing after every presentation?


I messed that up” <Thwack>

I did it all wrong” <Thwack>

It was dreadful, I did nothing right” <Thwack, Thwack, Thwack>


While it’s important post-presentation, to reflect on how we can improve our skills, many of us undertake this with a harsh, cruel judgment.


As you finish one presentation, you mentally set yourself up for the next. Reflect on what you did well, and you build confidence; internalize failure and you build a barrier against ever presenting again.


Professional coaching helps you to focus on success, followed by reflection on areas for improvement. The coach’s role is to encourage you forward by ensuring improvement points are noted while confidence is built.


Often though, professional coaching isn’t available post-presentation. No one offers feedback except ourselves, through the filter of our own judgment, which is a severe critic; “I botched that up, I messed up this, I should have done that….”


What gets neglected is “What did I do well? What am I proud of?”


Have the discipline after each presentation to reflect on what was GREAT! Be generous to yourself and focus on what you are proud of. You made an investment of time, energy, and courage to stand up and make that presentation. Now give yourself return on investment. It’s not only fair, it’s essential!


Fear of public speaking is perfectly natural, and you are not alone in experiencing it. Indeed, some surveys have shown that for many people it isn’t just a fear, but their number one fear, and that’s why becoming a confident and competent public speaker is such a wonderful goal. If you can achieve this goal, then what other goals also become so much more achievable.


I believe public speaking is therefore a gateway activity. Once we prove to ourselves that we can successfully speak in public, we are empowered onwards to achieve so much more.


{#/pub/images/PeterWatts.jpg}Written by Peter Watts, writer, coach, and trainer guiding presenters to be at their best when on the stage. Following a 15 year career within the technology sector that included 11 years working for Dell, Peter became a consultant specializing in training and coaching business presenters. Today he works with teams around America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to help multinational organizations to bring their message to their customers through the spoken word.Peter is based in the UK. In addition to training under his own Speak2All brand and as an Associate Trainer, he also writes a weekly blog of ideas for presenters, and can be followed daily on Twitter.



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