Overcoming Presentation Fear is Like Playing Basketball

How much do you really need to practise your presentation to overcome fear? It’s just like playing basketball! Wait… what?

You know your presentation topic pretty well, right?

If you are giving a progress presentation at work, you’ve probably been working on your project for ages — you know the information. If you’re pitching your company to funders, you know your business inside out. If you’re giving a keynote, you’re telling your own stories in your own voice.

You know your stuff!

You might be wondering: How much do I really need to practice my presentation out loud?

Do I Need to Rehearse?

People often tell me things like this:

“I don’t need to practice at home. The problem is not about knowing the information. If I were to tell you the presentation right now, sitting in front of you, I would get it right. The problem is when there are lots of people sitting listening to me. Then I get nervous and it all goes wrong.”

When we know a topic very well, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we don’t need to rehearse much. We worry that our problems run deeper than that, that we’ll never overcome our shortcomings. We worry that we are just bad speakers. We fear that we’ll never be able to give a great presentation.

I understand why people tell me this, but it is an unhelpful way of thinking. It stems from a misunderstanding about the purpose of rehearsal.

Why Public Speaking is Like Rehearsing a Slam Dunk

Remember, speaking on stage is a physical activity. When you use your voice professionally — and that’s what you are doing whenever you give a presentation — you need to prepare your body as much as you prepare your slide deck, if not more.

Imagine you are a professional basketball player.

You’d know how to throw the ball into the hoop, right? Intellectually, you’d be at the top of your game. You could imagine making a perfect shot from any area of the court.

But then the game begins. The crowds are yelling, your opponents are running all around you.

The fear hits.

You throw the ball… and miss.

That’s what happens in a presentation.You know your topic really well, you can run it over in your head with no problems. But then you’re up there in front of the audience and suddenly your mind says “Bye! I’m outta here.” You’re left blank and stuttering. Even though you stumble through the presentation, it’s not as engaging as you imagined it to be.

What do basketball players do to overcome these effects of pressure? They practise their shot over and over again. They practice it until their body is able to “take over” and they can take a great shot even when they are under pressure.

To be a great public speaker, you need to rehearse out loud. A lot.

Rehearsal is not about “knowing your stuff better”, it’s about preparing yourself enough so that your body “knows what it’s doing” when you start speaking in front of an audience.

But, wait! Before you run off to learn your presentation word-for-word, I would like to be clear what rehearsal is (and what it isn’t).

What About Over-Rehearsal?

Is Over-Rehearsal Really Dangerous?I’m a huge believer in the power of copious good rehearsals. I rehearse my speeches and presentations over and over again until I am comfortable with them. Then I rehearse them some more just to be sure that this comfort translates onto the stressful stage. For many of my speeches, I put in at least one hour of preparation (including research, “writing” and rehearsal) for every minute of the final speech.

When I tell people this, they sometimes ask me “Do you not worry that your presentation will sound over-rehearsed?”

Over-rehearsal is a hugely misunderstood effect.

You should not worry about “over” rehearsal. You should avoid bad rehearsal. In other words, as Dr Noa Kageyama — one of my favourite writers on the subject of practice — explains, avoid mindless practice. What most people think of as over-rehearsal is actually mindless over-rehearsal.

What is mindless over-rehearsal?

Let’s think back to the basketball player analogy.

Mindless rehearsal would be like standing in exactly the same spot on the basketball court and practising exactly the same shot hundreds of times. You might get good at that one shot, but what are the chances you will find yourself in exactly that spot during a real game? If you have to shoot from even 30cm away from it, you’ll probably miss.

Pro basketball players practise from all over the court. They shake it up. They will take a few shots from one space then run to another part of the court and try from there. When their concentration breaks — i.e. when their practice becomes mindless — they will take a break, drink some water, and start again when they have “come back into the room”.

How does that apply to presentations?

Your rehearsals should be a little bit different every time. Like the basketball players, you should shake it up. Explain your point using slightly different words, throw in a new anecdote, move to another part of the stage.

If you run through part of the presentation and it starts to feel dull and boring, chances are you have switched to mindless rehearsal mode. Stop, drink some water, and start again when you have reconnected with your body.

How Mindful Rehearsal Overcomes Fear

The opposite of mindless rehearsal is mindful rehearsal.

A basketball player is confident when she has practised until she knows that she can make a good shot in any situation. If she has only practised from one spot in the court, chances are she’ll be worried that she might not make it. If she has only rehearsed one or two times, she’ll almost certainly be worried. When she has practised enough, on the other hand, she will feel confident that she is ready.

When you have rehearsed your presentation enough that you are confident you know it inside out, you will naturally find you are less afraid of speaking in front of an audience.

Of course, the fear of public speaking never goes away completely. But, if you rehearse until you are confident you can present the material aloud, in various different ways, you are well on your way to success!

Do you get nervous before you stand up to speak? Let us know in the comments below. 

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