How to Cope With Presentation Anxiety
Here’s how a professor and experienced public speaker has learned to deal with the academic version of stage fright.
The fidgety movements, the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the thoughts spiraling around my brain. I pleaded silently to the announcer:
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The fidgety movements, the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the thoughts spiraling around my brain. I pleaded silently to the announcer: Please stop talking, and just let me get up there and start.
Because I knew that I would be fine in five minutes. At that point in my academic career — this was October 2015 — I had given dozens of presentations to faculty audiences, and I felt very comfortable at the front of the room. But those first few minutes always sent my blood pressure skyrocketing. As soon as they were behind me, I could relax and throw myself into the experience.
This particular event, however, had multiple factors ramping up my stage fright. I was talking about my latest book in Mexico, in a different time zone. I was tired and stressed from traveling and negotiating my way around an unfamiliar city. Most of my previous presentations had taken place in classrooms or small event rooms — here, I was on a high stage facing a large, tiered auditorium. I was speaking in English to a Spanish-speaking audience, aided by a translator. And the event was being broadcasted live. Any one of those factors, on its own, would have increased my heart rate, but all of them together supercharged the experience.
I made it through those dicey first five minutes. But the stress of it all was a tipping point: I began to solidify some practices to better cope with presentation anxiety. Over the course of my career, I’ve given more than 200 lectures or faculty workshops in the United States and abroad. The advice I am sharing here has emerged from a dozen years of thinking about the academic version of stage fright, experimenting with different approaches, and distilling them into three easy strategies.
All three emerge from the same simple idea: Build a pause into the initial minutes of a presentation, so that you can stop and catch your breath. I don’t mean the kind of brief pause you might make between two sentences. I mean a substantive pause in which you are able to stop speaking — for at least 30 seconds — because you have given your audience something to view, think about, or discuss.
Part of what provokes anxiety about a high-stakes presentation is envisioning that you will have to be speaking for the next 30 or 40 minutes, with nothing to rescue you if something goes wrong. It’s just you, a stage, a waiting audience, and a long block of time.
The remedy: Don’t envision yourself speaking for 45 minutes. Instead, soothe your brain and nervous system by persuading them that you only have to get through the next five minutes. Whatever happens in those five minutes, good or bad, you will then have the opportunity to regroup and start again.
Here, then, are my three pause strategies. They can be helpful if you feel nerves when you step into a college classroom. But even if you are a veteran teacher and the classroom doesn’t provoke such stress anymore, you may still feel apprehensive when the time comes to “perform” before your peers or speak publicly before nonacademic listeners. These techniques can work whether you are presenting in a workshop, on a stage, or on Zoom.
Discussion questions. Ken Bain, an author of an influential book on teaching in higher education — What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press) — used to lead a very successful and intellectually charged three-day workshop series based on his research. I served as an occasional presenter at some of these events and was always in the room for his opening session. A ballroom would be filled with 100 faculty members seated at round tables, eager to hear from our host. Ken would mosey up to the front of the room, pause, and ask us a question: “I want you to think about the last time you learned something deeply. What inspired you to do that? And how did you go about it?” After just a few more preliminary explanations, he would stop and say: “Turn to someone near you and share your experiences.”
The room sprang to life. This fascinating question never failed to get me thinking about my own learning experiences and trying to figure out what I should conclude from them. After this quick discussion break, Ken would then launch into the lecture we had been expecting. What made this technique work so well was the quality of the question. Ken knew that he had a bunch of teachers in the room whose work revolved around designing courses, activities, and assignments for others. But with this question, he provoked all of us to reflect on our own experiences as learners.
I’ve never asked Ken why he uses this strategy. But once I had observed him in action a few times, I realized that I could easily borrow his technique and use it to allay my stage fright in the early minutes of a presentation. While my audience was wrestling with an intriguing question, I could be deep breathing.
Make sure, if you use this tactic, to find a question that will resonate with your particular audience. So, for example, in a presentation on academic integrity, I would begin by asking audience members to think about the last time they were confronted with a case of student cheating. When the topic was attention and distraction in the college classroom, I would invite listeners to think about the moments in their lives when they were most attentive — and what circumstances created those periods of focus.
The goal is to make your audience stop and think so that you, too, can stop — in this case to soothe your nerves.
Intriguing images. We are saturated with imagery today. Photographs, memes, and graphics litter our social-media feeds on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. So there’s no shortage of potential material to distract your audience from looking expectantly at you while you get a grip.
If you start a presentation with an image, you might be tempted to jump in and start explaining it. Resist that instinct, and instead pause. Tell the audience to take a minute and look closely at the image. Count to 60 in your head. Then pose a question:
- “What’s the first thing that captures your eye?”
- “What lesson would you take from this image?”
- “What does this image make you think of?”
Ask for volunteers to share their answers. Or jump back in by giving your response to the question and then moving into your presentation.
I like to use images as openers in the college classroom, too. I project an image onto a large screen and invite students to get out of their seats and come up to look at it more closely, pointing out details to one another. Adding a little physical movement into the process helps shift attention in the room off of me for long enough to help me relax.
Video clips. The first time I knew I was going to feel some anxiety in the opening minutes of a presentation, my first idea was to show a short video clip. Videos can essentially replicate the work of the first two strategies: You can use video to raise a compelling question or invite audience observations. Such clips shouldn’t take too long — two to three minutes, at most.
I have moved away from the use of videos, however, because the quality of the available technology varies so much from venue to venue. I have had a few instances when the video player wouldn’t work. (Of course, the fact that it took a minute or two for a tech expert to diagnose the problem meant I still got my needed pause!) If you can, try to test out the technology of the room where you will be presenting beforehand. If it works, a video can provide the perfect two-minute, anxiety-soothing break in the action.
I’ve given many presentations since that stressful moment in Mexico. Just by sheer force of doing so many lectures and workshops, my stage fright has largely disappeared. However, I still believe in the power of the pause to engage audiences in an active learning experience. It’s no coincidence that all of these ideas draw from the literature on how to engage students in the classroom (which I wrote about in an essay on the first five minutes of class and in a longer guide on “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class”). Listeners at a workshop or conference are there to learn from you, after all, so you can use similar strategies in those presentations as you would in a classroom.
Not long ago, after a long hiatus from public speaking due to health problems, I gave my first presentation to a large faculty audience. I was the keynote speaker and was slotted after a state-of-the-college address and a series of updates by other administrators. As my time was approaching, I looked around at the members of the audience, who had been passively absorbing one piece of information after another.
These people, I thought to myself, don’t need another 45 minutes of unbroken lecturing from me. They would love a moment to reflect on something interesting and talk to a fellow teacher about it. After I had spoken for 10 minutes, I posed a discussion question and invited everyone to pair up. Not surprisingly, the energy level in the room soared.
Whatever strategy you might use to calm your nerves before a high-stakes presentation, spend the final moments before you take the microphone reminding yourself of this: Your audience wants to learn from you. But real learning requires active thought from the learner. So use those early moments of your talk to start them thinking and take some of the pressure off you.