Feel nervous before a presentation? This common speaking myth just makes it worse … and too many people believe it!
“Just try to calm down.”
We’ve all heard this advice, haven’t we? You might even have given this advice to someone in the past, I know I have.
Well, it’s bullshit.
“Try to calm down” is one of the most pervasive and (it turns out) false pieces of advice given to presenters.
Let’s look at the science behind this damaging myth and find out how you can reduce your anxiety by simply rephrasing it.
Why “Keep Calm and Carry On” is a Load of Crap
Some fascinating research into the “keep calm” myth was carried out by Alison Wood Brooks from the Harvard Business School in her paper Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014.
I first found out about this research via Dr Simon Raybould’s book Presentation Genius: 40 insights from the science of presenting. Simon’s book is well worth a read if you, like me, prefer your tips to be backed up by research.
In her paper, Wood Brooks challenged the conventional wisdom that saying “I am calm” before a presentation would reduce feelings of anxiety. To explore this, she tested participants using three anxiety-inducing tasks: karaoke singing, public speaking and a maths test.
Before conducting the tests, she surveyed a separate group of people to ask what advice they would give to a co-worker who was feeling anxious before a presentation. Over 90% of the respondents picked “Try to relax and feel calm” as the best advice.
Just as mugs which say “Keep Calm and Carry On” are pervasive in modern offices, advice which says “keep calm and give the presentation” is pervasive in modern presentations.
However, in Wood Brooks’ experiments she proved that telling yourself to “stay calm” just doesn’t work!
Tell Yourself to Feel Excited Instead
Excitement and anxiety are physically quite similar emotions, as I previously wrote about in the article Nervous About Public Speaking? Read This.
Over the three experiments, Wood Brooks aimed to find out if reframing anxiety as excitement would actually work. To do this, she compared feelings of anxiety in different groups of participants when, before they did the task, they told themselves either: “I am calm”, “I am anxious”, “I am excited” or when they told themselves nothing at all.
She found that there was no significant difference between the participant’s feelings of anxiety when they told themselves “I am calm” or when they said nothing at all. On the other hand, when they told themselves “I am excited”, they felt more excited about the performance.
Basically, if you tell yourself to “be calm”, it’s as good as saying nothing at all. You’ll feel just as anxious. However, if you tell yourself “I am excited” you can reframe the feelings as excitement.
How Being Excited Improves Your Presentation
However, the most useful results were still to come.
Participants who told themselves “I feel excited” experienced a whole load of extra benefits:
- For the karaoke task, the “excited” participants actually sang better. Singers who told themselves “I am anxious” sung with an average of 53% accuracy (i.e. singing the right notes); singers who told themselves nothing sung with 69% accuracy; and singers who told themselves “I’m exited” sang at 81% accuracy!
- For the public speaking task, speakers who told themselves “I’m excited” gave better performances compared to those who told themselves “I’m calm”. The audience rated the “excited” participants as: more persuasive, more competent, more confident and more persistent (i.e. determined, steady). The speakers also felt better about their own performance.
- For the public speaking task, “excited” speakers also spoke for an average of 29% longer. They used up more of their alloted speaking time rather than cutting their speech short, as the “calm” speakers did.
- For the maths test task, participants who were told to “try to get excited” scored significantly higher in the test than those who were told to “try to stay calm” or told nothing at all.
It seems clear that telling yourself “I am excited” — even if you don’t fully believe it — is a good strategy before you give a presentation!
You Wouldn’t Tranquilise Your Little Monkey, Would You?
The results of Wood Brook’s research don’t surprise me at all. I have long said that reframing fear as excitement is good idea before presentations.
But, what should you do if you are very, very anxious!?
Sometimes just telling yourself “I am excited” isn’t enough. You have so much nervous energy, you don’t know what to do with it.
In situations where I have an excess of anxious energy, I have an extra strategy that I use.
My approach can be best introduced by asking you this question: Would you tranquilise your child?
To explain what on earth I mean by this question, let me paint a picture for you.
What to Do With a Frantic Monkey
Imagine that you are in the room with an over-excited, frantic monkey. It doesn’t matter why it’s frantic, perhaps you are going to take it to the vet.
The monkey is jumping around the room. It is full of energy! No matter what you say, no matter how many bananas you promise it, you can’t get the monkey to stop running around like a crazy thing.
How would you stop the monkey? How would you calm the monkey down?
If you have watched any TV show about life in a zoo, you’ll know that the standard method is to shoot it with a tranquiliser dart.
Monkey goes to sleep, you can calmly take it to the vet.
This is the approach that we often try to use with our own anxiety.
We tend to think that the only way to deal with an excess of nervous energy is to suppress it. This is why there is such a worrying trend for people to take beta-blockers before presentations. Basically, people are tranquilising themselves because they don’t know how to deal with nervous energy.
But, this is a bad idea. Suppressed anxiety is still anxiety.
What to Do With a Frantic Child
Now imagine exactly the same situation. However, instead of a monkey, imagine it is your over-excited, frantic child.
Your child is jumping around the room. They are full of energy! No matter what you say, no matter how much you shout, no matter how much you try to bribe them, you can’t get your child to stop running around like a crazy thing.
How would you stop the child? How would you calm the child down?
Would you shoot them with a tranquiliser dart?
You might want to, but I highly doubt that you would.
In this situation, the approach you take to calm down the child will depend on you and the specific child.
However, here’s what my mum used to do with me. She would order me to “Go outside and run around the garden.”
She knew that, as I had so much energy, the only way to deal with it was to get me to use up some of the energy.
This is still true of me today. If I’m anxious about a performance, the best thing to do is to tell me to “go for a run.” I need to use up some of my nervous energy.
This is also a great strategy for your presentations. If you feel anxious, move your body! Don’t just stand around feeling anxious. Go for a brisk walk, jog up and down some stairs… anything which uses your body!
Using your body moves your nervous energy from your mind into your body.
I have found that thinking about nerves just makes them worse. Moving the energy into my body tends to reduce the nerves and makes them actually feel like excitement.
Be Excited and Use Your Body
Whenever I’ve got a presentation, this is what I do:
- I tell myself that I’m excited. I don’t think of the nerves as fear, I think of them as the adrenaline before an exciting event.
- I do a warm up. This both warms up voice and refocuses my energy from my thoughts into my body, which is usually enough to relieve the effects of any nervous energy. See this link for a free warm up eBook.
- I use my body. If I’m particularly anxious about the presentation (e.g. if it’s to an unusually large audience) I will go for a run during the day beforehand. I don’t make it a particularly tiring run, as I need to have enough energy for the event, but it helps hugely to reduce the physical effects of the anxiety.
If you follow a similar approach before your presentations, you can overcome the problems of anxiety and even turn them into excitement!