Recently I talked to someone, let's call her Eli (not her real name) who was very nervous about a big, upcoming presentation she had.
While Eli was excited about the opportunity to receive more recognition for her (amazing) work, she also felt concerned about being judged or considered "not good enough."
In this situation, how could she be less nervous about the great opportunity in front of her?
Thankfully, I learned the secret to that a few years ago and was able to share it with her. Calming yourself down before a presentation all comes down to a shift between two different perspectives.
Before we can get into how you can use a simple perspective shift to reduce your nervousness, we first need to understand why presenting makes people nervous in the first place.
Why does presenting make people nervous?
I could have told Eli that her fear was unfounded (which is what people often do) but that's not true.
Her nervousness was actually valid because the more people get exposed to your work, the more criticism you will likely get. And studies show that the brain registers emotional rejection registers similar to physical pain.
Of course, having more see your work will also lead to more positive feedback. However, due to the brain's negativity bias (which has had the evolutionary function of keeping humans alive from threats), people pay far more attention to negative feedback than to positive one.
In other words, doing something that will most likely lead to more criticism than just hiding underneath a blanket is highly counter-intuitive for the brain. It's therefore no wonder you'd be nervous and fearful about it.
What is the solution to nervousness and fear?
To the part of your brain that's concerned about survival, giving a big presentation might almost seem like running into a building that's on fire when every self-preservation instinct tells you to run the other way.
It's just not something that the brain wants you to do. How then, do you get yourself to do it anyway?
To consider this question, let's look at a group of people that literally runs into burning buildings... firefighters. How do they do it?
I believe it comes down to this: altruism is the antidote to fear. Fear is typically about the self's safety. On the other hand, altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others (often strangers).
In that sense, these mindsets are mutually exclusive.
A firefighter who runs towards a burning building is so focused on saving others that it overrides the human self-preservation instinct. It's that concern that helps a firefighter run towards the fire, not away from it.
How can this insight help Eli be less nervous when sharing her work?
Well, I explained to her that a simple shift would make her less nervous—focusing on the reader, instead of focusing on herself.
A 3-step process that can help you be less nervous when presenting:
1) Explore "proving worth" (the mindset that makes you more nervous)
"Proving worth" is a perspective that will make you more nervous when presenting.
It describes a mindset that is focused on yourself, where you're trying to convince others of your merit and how good you are.
In other words, it's a rather self-centered mindset, one that culture teaches us to assume in a competition (such as when applying for a job) or during a performance (such as giving a speech).
When people present from this perspective, their focus is on the self and on the impression that they leave on the other. Ironically, by having a self-centered focus, they actually do worse because they cut themselves off from the connection to their audience.
If you want to explore what that mindset feels like, simply ask yourself: "Does this presentation show my worth?" or "Does this presentation make me look good?"
2) Explore "providing value" (the mindset that makes you less nervous and helps you calm down)
On the other hand, "providing value" is a perspective that can help you become calmer before a presentation.
It's a mindset that's focused on the other person, on being helpful to someone else.
When you're providing value to another (for instance, during a presentation), you focus on their needs instead of on your performance. Ironically, that also makes you perform better because your audience members don't care that much whether you do something perfectly, they care about whether you give them something that's valuable for them.
If you manage to respond to your audience's needs during your presentation, they will think you did a good job... even if you used some filler words or encountered a technological challenge.
If you want to explore what that mindset feels like, simply ask yourself: "How can I help my listener?"
3) To reliably calm yourself down before presentations, practice switching between these mindsets
If you want to be able to reduce your nervousness at will, you have to learn how to recognize when you're in a "proving worth"-mindset and then practice switching to "providing value."
Before this behavior becomes automatic through practice, you could add a note to yourself at the start of your presentation that reminds you to focus on your audience, such as "How can I help my listener with this presentation?" "What does my listener need?"
A simple mindset shift was all it took to overcome Eli's nervousness
After I shared the information in this article with Eli, her entire demeanor changed. She suddenly was excited about giving her presentation and sharing her amazing work with people. Instead of worrying about how she would come across, she focused on the impact she could have on her audience.
Shifting her mindset also helped her put the danger into perspective. Yes, she might get criticized. And even though the brain registers emotional rejection more strongly than pain, Eli realized that she actually was quite safe. Unlike heroic firefighters who run into a burning building, she wasn't facing any real physical danger.
And those realizations helped her to step forward with confidence.
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