How to Deal with Nerves in Presentations and Public Speaking

By David Rose, Director LACS Training Brussels


Link to LACS Training Services


Quote about nerves in presentations and public speaking

Presenting or speaking in public – as you will likely have experienced – makes people nervous… In fact, it’s one of the commonest social fears.

1. Why do we get nervous?

When we are faced with a dangerous or difficult situation our body’s automatic “fight or flight” response kicks in, pumping adrenaline into our bloodstream.

In its most extreme form, it produces a condition psychologists term ‘glossophobia’ – where the sufferer literally freezes and can’t speak.

For most of us, it’s thankfully not so severe. We just get any combination of the more typical, ‘milder’ symptoms:

2. How does it affect our performance?

Here, we need to consider three key questions:

A) When does your audience judge you – deciding you’re a ‘good’ presenter with an interesting message for them (so you’ve got their attention)… or vice-versa (so they switch off)?

Answer: in about the first ten to thirty seconds

B) When do nerves affect us the strongest?

Answer: in about the first thirty seconds

C) How often do speakers recover after a ‘nervy’ start and fully recapture the audience’s attention?

Answer: very rarely, if ever

So, we have a crucial coincidence of the peak of a speaker’s nerves and ‘instant’ audience judgment together with the fact that if you don’t start well, you’ve lost an ‘ideal’ level of audience interest and impact you will most likely never fully recover.

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that after your presentation or speech you might feel like…

… you’ve underperformed…

…not kept the audience’s attention as you wanted…

…not had the impact you hoped for…

Dan Carnegie, US author of the worldwide bestseller ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’, summed up these ‘post-speaking blues’ very well:

3. How to deal with your nerves

So, which practical steps can you take to stop these nerves from compromising your start and damaging your overall effectiveness and impact as a speaker?

A) In advance

(i) Know your audience

Having a clear idea of your audience’s levels of subject knowledge, relative opinions and interests is central to giving an effective presentation.

>> Invest some time to fully consider your audience, it’s discrete sub-groups, which of them are your proirities and how you can best tailor your intended key messages and supporting detail to them.

A conscious awareness of who they are and how best to reach them before you formulate your content and decide how best to deliver it will make you more sure of yourself…and so more confident!

(ii) Structure your presentation

You know what you want to say – but have you structured your slides/information with a focus on ‘them’ and not ‘you’ – i.e. making sure your main messages are clearly organised, crystal clear and properly contextualised, supported and reiterated for your intended audience?

>> Ensure your key messages and supporting information are clearly and logically organised. This way, they are easier for you to deliver confidently. In parallel, your audience will find them easier to follow and more engaging – meaning you will keep their attention better.

(iii) Know your material through rehearsal

You’re actually going to deliver your material/PowerPoint, so trying to prepare yourself by simply reading it through numerous times is never effective.

>> Rehearse your material by actually delivering it. This will help you identify any ‘sticking points’ so you can refine them as well as ensuring you’re within your allotted time budget. Equally, it allows you to work out and practice key value-added elements such as body language, pausing and emphasis as well as transitions between slides if you’re using PowerPoint.

Remember: don’t be fooled by the urban myth that some people are just born ‘naturally good’ presenters and public speakers. Yes, some people are more suited to it by character. For this to be relevant to an excellent performance, they will also most likely be very experienced. Above all, however, they are simply very well rehearsed.

Case Study: for a key presentation at an annual sales conference, the European Director of a major international company – already widely recognised as an outstanding public speaker – rehearsed the full version his 45-minute presentation with my real-time coaching four times in two days. In between each ‘full rehearsal’ on stage, he spent numerous hours refining and amending his key messages and content. A natural? Maybe. Well-rehearsed? Definitely.

(iv) Managing ‘pre-nerves’: physical and psychological

Hydrate not dehydrate – adrenalin can cause a dry mouth, which in turn leads to having to swallow repeatedly as your mouth tries to produce saliva. Avoid coffee, energy drinks and alcohol for at least two hours before – they compound the problem. Ensure you drink a couple of glasses of water in the hour before your presentation. Have a glass of water with you when you present, taking sips occasionally to keep yourself hydrated.

Use positive visualization techniques – imagine that you are delivering your presentation to an audience that is interested, enthused, smiling, and reacting positively. Cement this positive image in your mind and recall it right before you are ready to go on.

Remember: your audience are there and ready to follow you if you give them reasons to do so.

Practice deep breathing – adrenalin causes you to breathe shallowly. By breathing deeply just before you present, your brain will get the oxygen it needs and you will lower your pulse, calming you and helping provide the platform to show your audience a measured and confident start.

B) During your presentation

(i) Managing performance nerves 1: your opening

Smile – this naturally relaxes you, sending ‘positive’ chemicals through your body and so counteracting your adrenaline. Equally, ‘smiling like you mean it’ also projects confidence to the audience.

Engage your body language – don’t be static. Eye contact, measured hand gestures and planned movement – e.g. repositioning yourself to the other side of the screen during a transition between slides – helps you expend some of your nervous energy and projects confidence and control.

Manage your speed through pausing – pausing regularly within and between messages helps you moderate your speed and manage your breathing. Remember, an ideal speed for public speaking is c.20% slower than you would normally speak in a conversation. This is doubly important at the start, as you want to catch and keep your audience’s attention, not lose it by nervously rushing through your opening material.

(ii) Managing performance nerves 2: throughout the presentation

The core of managing your nerves throughout your presentation/speech are the same as those most important at the start: i.e. using your body language to your advantage and managing your speed through regular pausing and breathing.

In addition, you should also consider a highly realistic but often overlooked element:

Coping with ‘slip ups’ – we’re all human. Consequently, we will inevitably have a few moments during our presentation when we ‘slip up’ – i.e. become tongue-tied, forget what we want to say next or explain something in an ‘unnecessarily overcomplicated’ way.

When you realise you’re slipping up, you get a sudden burst of adrenaline, ironically making you more likely to follow your ‘slip’ with another one! What defines you is not if you slip up, but how quickly and smoothly you recover from it.

Step 1: Be psychologically prepared for this happening a few times. Bear in mind your audience will quickly forget it if you recover quickly and confidently.

Step 2: Be prepared. Since experiencing a few of the typically observed slip ups is predictable, you can prepare your ‘recovery’ in advance.

So, what are these ‘typical’ slip ups and what’s the best way to deal with them?

Wrap up

When it comes to presenting, nerves are inevitable… but letting them ‘defeat’ you is not.

What separates highly effective presenters from the rest is not if they have nerves, but how they manage and channel them towards their goal: an effective communication.

You can emulate them by employing a conscious, two-part strategy to manage your natural nerves:

Limit uncertainty – be prepared and at ease with both your audience-focused content and how you’re going to deliver it

Calm them – use a range of well-documented techniques both before and during your presentation to counteract and best manage your unavoidable rush of adrenaline

So, now it’s over to you to turn your natural nerves into an ally and not an enemy…

…and good luck with your next presentation or piece of public speaking!

Does your organisation need training? Contact me at to benefit from my consultancy’s personalised, highly practical and cost-effective communication training services.

Visit to download a full catalogue of our training offer.

We offer made to measure training for:

● Presentations (core skills and advanced techniques)

● Public Speaking (speeches, press conferences, interviews)

● Professional Writing (reports, memos, briefings, minutes)

● Writing for Impact (web, position papers, policy papers)

● Meetings Facilitation/Chairing

© David Rose LACS Training 2012


Filed under 1 Public Speaking and Presentation Skills

2 responses to “How to Deal with Nerves in Presentations and Public Speaking

  1. Nikki

    Your post was very informative thank you for that

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