Early in my career as a corporate trainer, I often encountered this advice for calming nerves when you make a presentation: just imagine the audience members in their underwear. Perhaps you've heard the same advice? Ew! I can't think of anything less useful than imagining a bunch of colleagues in their skivvies. After years of making presentations and facilitating workshops for thousands of people in audiences all over North America, here are some tips that actually work--and they won't have you conjuring up any uncomfortable images whatsoever.
Let's start by replacing unhelpful mental imagery with a useful one: the image of you making a killer presentation that has the audience hanging on your every word and raising their hands enthusiastically during the question-and-answer section. Research into how athletes prepare for their big performance can inform how you prepare for your presentation. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco who has studied the benefits of mental imagery. He cites research that demonstrates that athletes who use mental imagery in addition to practice perform better than athletes who only practice. Dr. Taylor says, "Imagery also isn't just a mental experience that occurs in your head, but rather impacts you in every way: psychologically, emotionally, physically, technically, and tactically. Think of mental imagery as weight lifting for the mind."
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
The best way to calm nerves is to be prepared. My advice to young professionals making their first presentation: prepare for every eventuality. Be very literal--think, "What if my computer dies? How will I handle it?" Then when the unexpected happens, you'll have lots of options to draw upon. Because, believe me, Murphy's Law has not yet been repealed -- anything that can go wrong, will. You might wonder, "Doesn't all this negative thinking counteract my imagining success?" No, because what you are doing is anticipating how you will overcome any obstacle that comes your way.
Look People (Almost) in the Eye
Another familiar piece of advice is for the presenter to make direct eye contact with audience members. I agree with this, as long as you are feeling strong and confident in your presentation. However, if you are shy, or the presentation gets off to a rough start, I suggest looking at people just above their eyes. It will still appear as if you're making eye contact, but you won't be quite as intimidated by a frowning audience member.
Strike a Yoga Pose
Now, stick with me a moment! I'm not talking about dropping into a Down Dog pose in front of the conference room. Instead, there is a very simple yoga pose you can do with your hand that will be invisible to your audience, but will help center you. There are a whole series of finger movements (called "mudras" in yoga) that are thought to bring different forms of energy to your body. If you bring your thumb and index finger together to form a round "O" shape, that is the symbol of "Gyan Mudra," called the seal of wisdom. When you are feeling tense, just quietly put one or both of your hands to your side and make the circle of wisdom. And, don't forget to breathe gently while you do this.
Do a "Sound Check" on Yourself
One of the biggest annoyances when watching a presentation is to hear distracting noises emanating from the speaker. The two biggest culprits: change in pants pockets and noisy jewelry. Give yourself a once-over before you start speaking and remove any hardware that might be distracting. When you do this, you can feel more confident that you won't sound like the jingling of Santa's sleigh bells midway through your presentation.
Be Open to Change
Even with all the preparation in the world, sometimes presentations go awry. You simply can't control everything that happens in a meeting room, so don't even try. I've seen way too many presenters stick to their outline, determined to "tough it out" even though it's clear that their plan isn't working. If something isn't working, acknowledge it with a light-hearted quip and then move to either fix it quickly or change directions.
Feeling nervous about your next presentation? Throw out that old saw about envisioning people in their underwear. Instead, use these six tips to mentally and physically set yourself up for presentation success.