Avoiding Anxiety When Presenting

Avoiding Anxiety When Presenting title Presentation

If you are like most people, the thought of getting on the stage in front of a hundred people would cause your heart to pound quickly. Maybe your palms start to sweat. There is a lot of energy racing through your body. The question is are you excited or just scared. That all depends on your mental state. But what can certain is that you have a lot of energy at that time. That can be a good thing or a bad thing.

In speaking it is helpful for you to be able to control your energy level so you can pump people up when you want to and also speak in a relaxed manner when that is called for. If you are going 100 miles per hour like Tony Robbins you are going to wear out quite a few people who are not Tony Robbins fans.

The worse part would be if you are going 100 miles per hours, you get so tense that your muscle tightens up and your voice gets squeaky or you can not pronounce the words properly. At which point you may get embarrassed and then that mental picture is paraded over and over again hurting your self-esteem.

So, the question is how do you bring your energy down first. Then after you can bring it down how do you bring it back up to where it needs to be at other parts of the speech or for different speeches and different audiences?

Does exercise work before presenting?

There is one technique that Don Greene and other professional sports psychologists recommend. You will find it in a variety of books by psychologists but rarely does an author on presentation write about this. I find that strange since speakers just like athletes and musicians deal with this kind of problem.

Before going to the seven step process that Don Greene recommends. First, try something simple. There are three things you can do. The first is to do some very active exercise just before you present.

You need to get your heart beating faster than it currently is. What you could do is run in place for thirty seconds. You could jump up and down for a minute or so. Maybe even do push-ups. You will have to consider what to do considering the space and the clothing you are wearing.

Pluses and minuses of exercising

However, a bit of advice. Do not go overboard. There is no point in exercising to the point that you will sweat. You do not want your nice white shirt stained in with sweat when you come out to speak to people. That would look very bad, especially if you have a suit on.

Also, if you are a guy, be careful of your necktie. If you are going to do some exercise, the necktie should not be so tight that it would block taking deep breaths. That also hurts blood circulation and thinking. Anyway, the tie and collar should be reasonably loose. If you are on stage you are so far away, not one will notice. If you are on camera, you can make adjustments there as well.

Also if you are going to do some hard exercise, do not put that exercise too close to being introduced. No one wants to hear a speaker out of breath. Nor do they want to hear heavy breathing.

Now you might ask why do this? After getting your heart to beat very fast, your body will naturally try to slow your heart down back to its former level. This slowing down will make your feel more relaxed, and less adrenaline will course through your body. Then you can start your speech at the right energy level. I used to do this before my speech when I started, but now I don`t need to.

Breathing and dealing with performance anxiety

The second thing you can do is simply to try to take deep breaths. I recommend the box breathing method. First, you exhale while counting to five slowly. Then you hold your breath for another five seconds. Then you breathe in for five seconds. Finally, you hold your breath for five seconds and exhale again.

You can repeat this as many times as you need to make you feel relaxed. You can also vary the time if you find it hard to breathe that long or it seems too short.

This also works well for calming the body down and can also be useful for meditation. There are quite a few people who work in highly stressful occupations like Navy Seals or emergency nurses who use this technique.

It can be just as good as exercising in bringing your heart rate down. The added benefit is there is no danger of sweat or loud breathing when you start to speak. You probably do not want to be doing it if someone is setting you up with a wireless microphone. Still, as a speaker or presenter, it would be smart to have this in your toolbox.

Broaden Your Visual Focus

A third thing you can try is to change your focus. When we are in fight or flight mode our visual focus tends to narrow down on the “threat.” You might find a frowning face, a tired look, or even someone catching up on the latest SNS firestorm. These people are not threats. But to convince your body otherwise, you need to broaden your focus. A broader focus will also tell your body there isn’t any danger.

So, look out not to a single individual, but the whole group. Take a few seconds before you start to look across the room and just sink it in. That may feel like an eternity for you. But for your audience, it can be a blink of an eye. So go ahead and soak it all in.

If you are staring into the camera, just focus on the camera lens or the screen in front of you but imagine a group of smiling faces just beyond the camera. Imagine the numbers of people in their own homes looking forward to your next speech.

These three things will help you get calm before going on stage or before the camera is live. But, once things get started, some people still go into high gear unintentionally. In those cases, you need to practice the centering technique.

A couple of was to try to reduce nervousness are:

  1. Do exercise that brings your heart rate up,
  2. Try box breathing to calm yourself down.
  3. Look over the entire audience instead of focusing on one scary looking person.

Seven Steps To Being Free from Performance Anxiety

The technique is very simple, but it does require practice. It takes time to get all the steps right and it takes time to effectively go through the steps quickly enough that no one notices you are doing it in front of an audience.

The steps are:
Step 1: Form your intention
Step 2: Pick a focal point
Step 3: Breath mindfully
Step 4: Release tension
Step 5: Find your center
Step 6: Repeat your process cue
Step 7: Direct your energy

Step 1: Forming your intention

The first step, forming your intention is important. It put the focus from “Oh my god, I`m going to fail. What will they think of me!” to “I want my audience to laugh, cry and enjoy this great story.” This is going from me-focus to you-focus.

Even if you already know what your intention is, it is important to mentally remind yourself. This you ordering your brain to focus on what we are trying to do here. All your energy should be on getting that contract, inspiring the audience, or whatever.

Your intention should be something you decided way at the beginning when you were creating your speech. If you have not done that already, then you have not created your speech properly, to begin with. I would go back to your key statement and review it. Repeat it in your mind many times to drive out the negative thoughts.

Step 2: Pick a focal point

Once you start moving your mind away from you and towards the audience, you need to move to the next step. That is picking a focal point. This is the place where you will mentally direct your excess energy. A good place is somewhere way in the back in one of the corners. But it can also be sideways off the stage. Whatever place makes you the most comfortable. You may need to experiment with this a little.

Step 3: Breathe mindfully

After you do that the next thing is to breathe mindfully. That is to focus on breathing in and breathing out. Just that. You can use box breathing if you feel that helps.

It rather depends on how much time you have from the time you start trying to center yourself to the time you give your first line. But in any case, the important thing is to focus on breathing. This will calm you down.

Step 4: Release tension

Then the fourth thing to do is to release tension in your muscles. When you are in fight or flight mode your muscles naturally tighten up. That would be an OK response for dealing with a lion, but it is rather unproductive if you have to deliver a powerful performance. The worst part is that a bad performance also causes you to tense up more, making your performance worse, so you need to get out of this vicious cycle and relax.

As you are breathing you start imaging that the tension in your muscles is slowly going away. Start from the top and work your way down. There are quite a few mediation apps that instruct you about this. You can use one of those at first if you want. The typical recommendation is to start a scan from the top. Consider if your face, jaw, neck, shoulders, forearms, etc. are tense. Then gently relax them. Take a single breath as you check each spot.

If you had any experience at any of this, the quick response would be “Easy for you to say!” After a which there would be a list of excuses. The feeling that it is easy to say but hard to do is correct. I don`t expect anyone to get it right the first time or even the fifth or tenth. It takes time to even get to this step and try to relax with so much self-created pressure, but it is worth trying.

Step 5: Find the center

Even if you are only partially successful, move to the next step with is finding the center of gravity for your body. This would be close to your belly. If it is hard to figure out where that is exactly, set your feet reasonably apart and move your hips around slowly. As you tighten the circle, you should be able to find approximately where the center is. Focus on that sensation and location.

Step 6: Focus on process cues

The sixth step is focusing on process cues. In the first step, you were focusing on your intention, which is the final result of your speech. The process cue is the reminder of what you want as your doing your speech. Maybe you want to be “smooth and confident.” Maybe you want to be “powerful and engaging.” Maybe you want to be “cheerful and funny.” Or maybe some combination at different parts of your speech.

Any long presentation (i.e. more than ten minutes) will tend to have different moods at different points. But keeping track of them can be a pain, so I recommend no more than three for thirty minutes. Fewer is fine. Also, you do not need a different cue for each emotional turn in your story. These cues are just reminders of the general atmosphere you are trying to project as you talk.

Step 7: Direct excess energy

Finally, as you need it. Direct your excess energy to the focal point that you had chosen earlier. There are going to be times especially in the beginning that you will have extra energy to get rid of.

You can imagine that energy coming out of your eyes off into that far corner of the room. Depending on the occasion and size, maybe you are striding to the center, you wave to the audience and imagine that extra energy go out of your hand and into the back of the room.

If it is just you, a camera or a computer screen, imagine that energy going out of your fingers and into the nearby outlet. Do whatever works for you. There is no one right way.

What About Music and Mood?


The above simple three techniques, plus the seven-step process is a good way to go from high energy to lower energy. But there are times when you need to bring your energy up a notch. In those cases, I feel that music and imitation can work well. You can use these before, during, and after your speech to keep your energy levels to where you want them to be.

Music by itself has a lot of power, you can probably imagine a time when music was played just before a big game. The high-energy music is supposed to psych the athletes up so they can play at their peak as soon as the game starts. There may also be pieces of music that make you happy, sad, or whatever. In any case, music can help turn our emotions around when we need them.

Using music before the big presentation

For example, you still feel you need encouragement, pick a song that will do that very thing. If you are feeling sad because your dog died due to cancer the night before your speech, then pick a song that will pick you up and distract you from that for a little bit. I have a few songs that I like to listen to when I`m giving speeches, and I change the songs in and out.

Recently, I rather enjoy Sia’s “Never Give Up” and Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes.” But I suggest trying a few songs out to see what works. Not every song will work for every occasion. It rather depends on the mode you need to be in and the mode that you are currently in.

But one point of caution when choosing the songs. Be careful of the song’s lyrics. If you’re going to use these songs to help you bring the mood you want, you are probably going to playing these a lot. This means that the lyrics will seep into your unconsciousness. So, make sure that the lyrics are positive and not self-deprecating.

I only use actual music sparingly. If I need to pump myself up I will play the songs I previously mentioned. But generally, I don`t want to scare the low tension group in the crowd so, keep my energy at a reasonable level to start with and gradually build it from there. If needed I can play the music that I know very well in my head to bring in the right tension.

To keep you in a positive mood, pick energetic music. Also be careful of the lyrics. These should be positive too.

“Presentation is almost like acting…”

on stage

Perhaps a good way of practicing how to change your energy is to practice your speech, but if different characters. Speeches are said to be easy in that all you have to be is you. Actors have to be completely different characters. I think that thinking is a little wrong. You still have to be you, but you need to be bigger, better, and perhaps even bolder than you would be off stage. To do that you need to pretend.

First consider, what is your normal energy level when you generally interact with people. Some people are naturally high-energy people like Tony Robbins. Some are low-energy people like a typical Texas cowboy on the lone prairie. Some are just in between.

If you know where you are, then as you are creating your speech or presentation you need to consider how that energy level changes over time. You shouldn’t try to keep the same level all the time.

Too high or too low?

People who are high-level all the time wear the audience out. Not everyone can take the rock-em socking energy of a motivational speaker with too much sugar. The audience is not going to make it through the first five minutes.

On the other hand, if you are Mr. Low Energy, like Ben Stein’s character, about half of the people will fall asleep in the first five minutes. So, you will need balance, in a roller coaster-like way.

When you are planning your speech, you would probably consider your overall objective. Are you informing them of something, are you giving them a pep talk, are you asking them to buy something, etc.

Considering the different types of speeches, stories, etc. you can generally plan out what your energy level needs to be. I recommend a simple scale from one to 1 – 5. With 3 being an average person’s energy level. 5+ is hyped up on sugar. 1 is the “I’m at a funeral, so let’s be quiet” level of energy.

What would XXX do?

If numbers are not your thing, then consider different personalities that you know for each of the different levels. They could be people you know personally to celebrities. This can include the stereotypes that I have already mentioned. Just use whatever is handy for you.

Then I would mark different parts of your speech and note the places where you need to go up or go down in energy. Then I would practices this, by imagining how you would act at each energy level. I would go just a little overboard. This is because you need to go a little overboard just to get people to notice.

I also recommend recording yourself. You might find that your energy level changes much less than you thought. The video rarely lies in this case, so it can be a good way to check if you are making the variations that you need when you practice.

Consider how much energy you need to bring to different parts of the presentation. These could be +1 to ++1 to 0. If that is hard to imagine, imagine how some other famous person would do it. Then pretend to be that person.

Be careful of the practicing environment

Please note that this type of practice is only effective if you already know how to center yourself when you have to speak in front of people. There is always going to be a slight difference between practice and the real thing. So, I generally recommend trying to make it as close to the real thing as possible.

One way to create an environment close to the real thing is to convince friends to see your practice. Or maybe you can create a presentation practice group. Another option is to practice on Facebook Live. But that takes guts. In any case, putting pressure on yourself in the practices will make it much easier for your to control your energy when you have to do the real thing in front of an audience that counts.


Whether it pre-presentation exercising, centering, or even listening to music, controlling our energy levels is important for our presentations. We need to be able to effectively transfer our enthusiasm to the audience as Zig Ziglar would say. To do that we need to meet the audience at the energy level that they are at, and lead them to that needed level of enthusiasm. To do so we need to lead ourselves first. These exercises can do that very thing.

If you need help with any of these exercises or need help with an upcoming presentation please feel free to contact me. I help people effectively use logic, psychology, and rhetoric to build powerful presentations. A good presentation can make or break a business. So please leave any questions or comments here.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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