July 2nd 2021: Last week I had the opportunity to get back on stage in front of a live theatre audience for the first time this year. It was an exhilarating, uplifting and joyous experience; sensing the energy in the theatre, hearing laughter from the audience, feeling that crackle and buzz that only live performance can create. But it was also undeniably nerve-wracking. For many in the cast it was the first time performing in front of a live audience for over 18 months, prompting many a discussion about how best to manage those nerves and channel them in a way to add energy and sparkle to their performance.
In a workplace context, many of us are feeling genuine anxiety over the return to face-to-face meetings and presentations. We’ve got used to presenting remotely, have fully settled into the virtual world of work, sitting in front of our laptops, relying on notes to get us through important presentations and pitches. For many, the thought of physically standing in front of prospects or clients and presenting face-to-face is utterly, nail-bitingly terrifying. So how can we stop the nerves taking over, derailing our performance and eroding our confidence?
It takes practice to keep your nerves under control and to stop them taking centre stage. I first shared these tips back in 2017 but thought now would be a good time to share them again. Have a look through these five pointers to help you start mastering those performance jitters:
1. Don’t fight the fear
Accept your fear rather than trying to fight it. Getting yourself worked up by wondering if people will notice your nervousness will only heighten your anxiety. Understand what’s in your control and what’s not. Like many people, I suffer from the dreaded ‘nerve rash’. It starts as a cluster of tiny red pin pricks on my chest, then cruelly creeps upwards to my neck and face, unfurling into an angry red declaration of my inner state. It’s a dead give away; an unavoidable symptom that shouts “Look at me! I’m so NERVOUS!”. It’s taken me years to accept that there is absolutely nothing I can do to control this. I will always go red when presenting and performing. Even when I feel calm and prepared, the nerve rash will pop up and try to derail me. Accepting this is out of my control has been nothing short of liberating. So what if I go red?!
2. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
Actors aren’t expected to go on stage without having rehearsed their part, so why do we so often leave little or no time for rehearsing workplace presentations? There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than feeling unprepared for a big pitch or presentation. Know your content, master the smallest details, then practice saying your presentation out loud, getting feedback if you can from a friendly (but honest) colleague. The more you prepare and rehearse, the less likely it is that your nerves will take over on the day.
3. Transform nervous energy into enthusiasm
Turn those jitters into focused enthusiasm. Instead of obsessing about the fact that you’re nervous, tell yourself that you’re excited. Tell your mind to put a different spin on what your body’s going through. When you feel nervous you’re thinking too much about potential threats, when you should really be focusing on the potential opportunities. It pays to embrace your nerves and be positive. Even if you don’t believe it at first, saying ‘I’m excited’ out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement and leads you to be more enthusiastic, persuasive and relaxed when presenting.
4. Make the candle flicker
If, before you present, you start to feel your pulse quicken and your breathing become fast and shallow, take yourself off to a quiet place and try the flickering candle exercise. Imagine there is a candle a metre in front of you. Take a deep breath in and then slowly exhale, making the imaginary candle in front of you gently flicker. Repeat this exercise several times to help get oxygen to your brain and to relax your body ahead of your presentation.
Nerves can do all manner of strange things to our faces. Smiling can make all the difference. It increases endorphins, replaces anxiety with calm and gives the impression of confidence and enthusiasm. Everyone can smile. Try it. It works.