Back to Presentation Skills
IntroductionStrategies to reduce presentation anxietyTechniques for common challenges
Managing presentation anxiety
“Think connection, not perfection”
When you begin a lecture, conference proceeding, seminar, or class do you think:
- Will they like me? Will I have anything useful to say?
- Will I sound smart, competent and professional?
We often think more about ourselves while doing a presentation then we do about our audience, and this leads to increased anxiety or nervousness.
Presenters who have mastered their anxiety have learned to focus more on the audience than on their own performance. You can learn to shift your perspective from “me” them “them” by asking
What does the audience most need to hear from me today?
Start your presentation with content, not fillers or personal details.
Seek rapport with the audience: respond or adapt to feedback, smile, make (or appear to make) eye contact.
Think about connecting t your audience, rather than continually monitoring yourself for your “perfect” performance.
How does your nervousness about presenting in front of a group express itself? Consider your feelings, thoughts, body reactions and behavioural responses or actions. Do you tend to get all wound up and “over the top” or are you more likely to freeze and feel paralyzed?
Anxiety affects people in a few predictable ways including altered breathing (e.g. holding the breath or rapid shallow breathing) and increased muscle tension which affects vocal production, negative or critical thinking, feeling incompetent or unworthy or scared, and a tendency to avoid anxiety-provoking situations.
The good news is that you can learn strategies to reduce your anxiety and become a better presenter through self-awareness, specific techniques and practice.
Strategies to Reduce Presentation Anxiety
Preparation and practice are the fundamental ways of reducing your anxiety. Refer to the handout on Presentation Skills. In addition, there are techniques related to working with your mind and body as well as your delivery.
The primary targets in a cognitive-behavioural approach to anxiety reduction include
- learning to control your breathing, and
- replacing negative, punishing, and under-mining thoughts with encouraging, more realistic, positive thoughts.
Both these methods are considered skills and therefore require practice.
Calming Breath Exercise: 5 In – 5 Hold – 5 Out
This calming breath exercise will help you achieve a deep state of relaxation quickly. A note of caution: avoid taking several excessively deep breaths and stop the exercise if you feel faint.
- Sit erect but relaxed in a chair, lie down or stand comfortably with your knees slightly bent. Relax (drop or lower) your shoulders if you can, and relax your mouth and throat by slightly dropping your jaw.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth at a normal pace and depth for a few breaths.
- Now focus on the air moving in and out. Breathe in for 5 counts.
- Pause and hold your breath for 5 counts.
- Exhale slowly, through the mouth, to a count of 5.
- Feel the “balloon” in your belly deflating Exhale fully. Repeat 5-10 times or more.
Observe your level of muscle tension and calmness/agitation before and after the exercise. Try to remember the feeling of calmness; check in with yourself periodically and use this technique to bring yourself relief.
When giving a presentation you will not have many opportunities for a series of calming breaths, but sometimes a single calming “5 in, 5 hold, 5 out” breath will break a cycle of
growing anxiety. In addition, you can take a calming breath at the end of every sentence or two, which doubly serves to reduce your anxiety and slows your pace to enable the audience to think about your presentation.
Re-Writing Your Negative Thinking
Observe your own thinking — is it helpful? Disabling?
We all have messages in our mind that are like well-worn tape recordings. Some of those messages serve to encourage us to grow (e.g., ask deeper questions, do better, go faster, get it right), some are comforting and complimentary (e.g., good job, well done, nice effort).
Some messages in our heads make it hard to persist or try new things (e.g., you’ll never get it, no one will hire you, you’re just not good enough).
Your Coach, Your Critic
With practice, you can re-write the script in your mind to make it more helpful, and you can then use these empowering thoughts anywhere, anytime.
- Write positive self-statements that leave no room for self-doubt. Make your statements
- use “I,” in the present
- positive, simple, direct
- For example, “I can do this” (NOT “This is going to be terrible” or “They’ll think I’m stupid.”) More positive self-statements:
- “I have practiced, I’ll be fine.”
- “This was ok last time, I’ll just do my best again.”
- “I know what I am talking about.”
- Practice these statements often, first in situations where you already feel comfortable, and then at times when you typically feel nervous.
- BELIEVE that you can overcome years of negative thinking as you practice saying these positive self-statements.
For more detailed suggestions see also “Fixed and Growth Mindsets” and “Mindset Online.”
Improving delivery skills: Techniques for common challenges
Problem #1: Nervousness before a presentation
- Prepare and practice before you actually perform.
- Memorize the first few sentences in advance.
- Review the opening statements just before you perform.
- Do physical warm ups:
- Vocal exercise (e.g., opera singers do scales)
- Body (e.g., athletes stretch)
- Breathe (count 5 in, 5 hold, 5 out, about 8 times).
- Use positive self-talk: be your own coach.
- BELIEVE in yourself.
Problem #2: Going off track: forgetting, losing concentration
- BREATHE, visualize yourself in control.
- Refer to notes or powerpoint slides.
- Buy time: “Let’s summarize…” or “Any questions so far?”
- Summarize: restate most important points.
- Forgive yourself – it happens! Find your place and keep going.
Problem #3: Poor vocal production, e.g. shaky, thin, quiet, no sound
- Warm up, before your presentation.
- Sip warm water.
- Check posture and head position: shoulders lowered, knees slightly bent, chin tucked toward chest, straight spine, jaw dropped when not speaking.
- Pause at end of each sentence, and breathe.
- Project (throw) your voice:
- lower your voice register
- bounce voice off wall, column to increase the volume
Problem #4: Accent among EAL speakers
- Practice difficult words or critical words beforehand, and get feedback on pronunciation.
- Speak slowly to improve your articulation and allow audience time to process content.
- Watch your audience for feedback, to anticipate questions, request for clarification.
- Repeat or rephrase key information as you go.
- Put key information on your powerpoint slides.
Problem #5: Handling the Question & Answer Period
- Prepare answers to likely questions, in advance.
- Instruct audience as to when to ask questions (during? at the end?).
- Open Q&A using an open question format (Who has the first question? or What topic should we begin by discussing?) rather than a “yes/no” question (Are there any questions?) or refer to the issue you posed as a discussion point during your opening comments.
- Listen carefully to the entire question.
- Repeat question aloud to clarify the question and enable audience to hear it.
- Stop and think about your response.
- Answer briefly and coherently.
- It is OK to say “I don’t know.” Consider offering to find out and respond later.
- Invite the audience to discuss difficult, controversial or interesting questions.
- Sum up the significant aspects of your talk and ideas generated through Q&A, to re- establish control of the session. Offer thanks to your audience for their participation.
Problem #6: Stimulating Discussion
- Propose a theoretical, applied or deep question at the beginning of the talk, and open the discussion period with that question.
- Invite the audience to think privately:
- pair with a partner and briefly discuss their ideas
- share with the larger group.
This often overcomes shyness in expressing a view by getting some feedback first.
- Open the discussion by asking “What is the first question?” as it feels less intimidating than “Who has the first question?”
- If you know the group is quiet, you could consider “planting” someone to ask you a question.
- If you have on-going contact with the group, you can request they read specific material in advance, and start the discussion by referring to key ideas or questions you may have asked them to consider.
Problem #7: Feeling faint while speaking
- Move while speaking.
- Stand with your knees slightly bent.
- Take a sip of water (i.e., swallow and breathe).
- It’s better to leave or sit down than faint, in all likelihood!
Return to Perfectionism in Writing
Strategies about managing your timeStrategies to cope with the anxiety of writingGrowth mindsetsLetting go or stopping strategies
Strategies about managing your time
- Plan to write on a regular basis. Work 90 minutes followed by a significant rest or other unrelated task, or work a 3 hour block divided into 3 periods of ~ 50 minutes “on task” (thinking or writing), 10 minute break, or any pattern that works for you.
- Break a large project into smaller more manageable pieces. Will your finished document be a collection of shorter chapters or critical essays? (Haven’t you written smallerpieces previously, and this project just has more chunks?)
- There is no perfect order in writing on the topics. Think of a section you’re comfortable with writing. e.g. the section you’re most ready to write, or the part that will be easiest/most interesting/most fun.
- If you are stuck with something, put it in point form, highlight it, make a note to come back later – but move on!
- Work backwards from large target dates, and create due dates for the smaller pieces. See for example project scheduling software such as the Assignment Calculator for research papers, or the Thesis Manager, or the Gantt chart.
- Start a writing journal, to track your thought development and to add some fun.
- Finish each writing session by posing a question to yourself based on this day’s work- something you didn’t quite understand, or something you want to think more about, or something you can’t see how to connect with another important idea.
- Start each writing session by recording any thoughts you may have had about yesterday’s
- If you lose track of the development of your line of reasoning or direction, review your journal for clues.
Decide how to use your perfectionistic habit
Consider what skill or attribute is required for the different tasks (creative thinking, picky data analysis, precise checking of citations…). Indulge the perfectionist in you for tasks requiring an uncompromising standard of excellence. Apply the “good enough” standard to other tasks.
Strategies to cope with the anxiety of writing
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a sh*tty first draft…Perfectionism means you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of holding breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.” (Lamott, A., Bird by Bird, 1995)
Well- chosen strategies regarding your attitude, approach to the writing process and work habits may be necessary but not sufficient for some people to overcome their perfectionistic habits, actually engage in writing in a satisfying way, and produce the required product.
Do you experience uncompromisingly critical self-evaluation? a crippling desire to be thought of as extraordinarily exceptional? IGNORE BOTH!
Cognitive strategies to reduce anxiety
Engaging with writing
We all have an inner dialogue that has developed over our life-times, which reflect the experiences we have had. Those voices can inspire us and help us make good choices, but can also feed our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. Are your inner voices helpful to you or holding you back?
Think of your inner dialogue or self-talk as coming from a “coach’ or “critic.” Your coach helps you grow and face new challenges.
Your critic keeps you fixed, scared and dissatisfied with your efforts and results.
- Picture your coach and your critic sitting on each of your shoulders
- Create a visual image that make sense for you, to capture the words or feelings they Feed the one you want- you have a choice.
- Practice calling on your supportive coach when you sit down to write, or face another challenging
- Refute your Ask yourself:
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- How likely is this to happen?
- Is there any evidence that contradicts this negative view?
- Am I looking at the whole picture?
- I am being realistically objective?
- As you become more aware of your monstrous critic attacking you, imagine putting the demon in a sealed box, or putting a clothes pin on its nasty mouth!!
Get back to work! You do not need to be held hostage by your own negative thoughts.
Develop a growth mindset
Recent research by Dr. Carol Dweck describes how we can become more aware of the dialogue in our minds and change it to become more helpful.
She describes two broad mindset types: fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits and thus cannot be improved or changed. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong! People who hold a growth mindset understand that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
How You Can Change From a “Fixed Mindset” to a “Growth Mindset”
Even if your ideas and opinions about intelligence, talent, and academic achievement are currently those of a fixed mindset, that does not mean you cannot change it into a growth mindset!
© 2006-2010 Carol Dweck. All Rights Reserved.
Step 1. Learn to hear your fixed mindset “voice.”
As you approach a challenge, that voice might say to you:
- Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.
- What if you fail? You’ll be a failure!
- People will laugh at you for thinking you had talent.
- If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.
- As you hit a setback, the voice might say, “This would have been a snap if you really had talent.”
- You see, I told you it was a bad idea.
- Now you’ve gone and shown the world how limited you are.
- It’s not too late to back out… quick, make excuses!
As you face criticism:
- You might hear yourself say, “It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.”
- You might feel yourself getting angry at the person who is giving you feedback. “Who do they think they are? I’ll put them in their place.”
- The other person might be giving you specific, constructive feedback, but you might be hearing them say “I’m really disappointed in you. I thought you were capable but now I see you’re not.”
Step 2. Recognize that you have a choice.
How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.
So as you face challenges, setbacks, and criticism, listen to the fixed mindset voice and…
Step 3. Talk back to it with a growth mindset voice.
Try these growth mindset responses to the fixed mindset voice in your head:
As you approach a challenge:
|“Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.”
||“I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.”
|“What if you fail? You’ll be a failure.”
||“Most successful people had failures along the way.”
|“If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.”
||“If I don’t try, I automatically fail. Where’s the dignity in that?”
As you hit a setback:
|“This would have been a snap if you really had talent.”
||“That is so wrong. Basketball wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan and science wasn’t easy for Thomas Edison. They had a passion and put in tons of effort.”
As you face criticism:
|“It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.”
||“If I don’t take responsibility, I can’t fix it. Let me listen—however painful it is– and learn whatever I can.”
Step 4. Take the growth mindset action.
Over time, which voice you heed becomes pretty much your choice. Whether you
- take on the challenge wholeheartedly,
- learn from your setbacks and try again, or
- hear the criticism and act on it is now in your hands.
Practice hearing both voices, and practice acting on the growth mindset. See how you can make it work for you.
Letting go or stopping strategies
Trouble stopping the literature search phase?
When you start seeing the same material over and over… it’s time to stop researching. Keep perspective: one article is very seldom so earth-shattering that it changes your argument, and it’s more likely just to end up as a single reference or a footnote.
When you are spending all your time researching a minor detail or remotely related topic… it’s time to stop.
If you don’t have an overall picture of how the current topic you are investigating relates to the purpose or thesis statement, stop and think. Try making a mind map of the topics you wish to discuss. Where does your current area of reading fit in? Is it a major area directly related to the thesis statement or core theme, or is it a sub-sub-sub-sub-topic?? Decide the value of continuing to pursue the search vs setting boundaries on what you are able to discuss.
Trouble stopping the writing phase?
Consider “contracting” with yourself for your desired grade or end product before you begin writing. STOP when you achieve your goal.
Weigh your desired grade or quality of finished product against other factors such as the amount of available time, resources, other demands you must meet, or obligations, and the importance of this phase of the project. Trust your judgment. Monitor the project in relation to your practical goal, and stick to the plan.
Satisfactory product vs. Resources and other obligations
Use a good time management plan, with tasks to be completed by certain dates. Stick to it.
Build down- time into your schedule, so you get some distance from your writing. When you re- read your work, you may have a better perspective and be more objective.
Be aware of when you are “obsessing” over the quality of your work. Do a Cost /Benefit Analysis, or try a 4-Square Review. This is when you compare what you desire and fear about working on the piece, and also what you desire and fear about stopping the work.
|What do I desire about continuing to work on the piece?
|What do I fear about continuing to work on the piece?
|What do I fear about stopping?
|What do I desire about stopping?
4 Square Review:
- Record your thoughts, as above
- Look them over
- Accept the contradictions within yourself…we are full of contradictions!
- If you are trying to make a decision, the content may be useful in weighing alternatives
Arrange with your supervisor or a friend to have regular check-ins, to help you stay on track with your time management plan.
Seek a qualified opinion regarding your final draft document, or use a copy editor.
Quiet your inner critic, that pushes you to seek uncompromising excellence and is never satisfied with what you offer.
Trouble letting it go and handing it in?
Aim for the latest word, not the last word! You are joining a long line of individuals who have thought about this problem, or whose thoughts have led up to this problem.
Quiet your inner critic.
Keep your perspective. In truth, others will have different things to say at some point. Your writing captures your knowledge or perspective at this moment in time. That is enough.
Make a list of your strengths, past achievements, skills. Use this as a buffer for your ego if you are frightened to receive feedback.
Reframe the value of the feedback you may receive. It is not a reflection of your personhood, although your supervisor may make suggestions to improve your writing process or end product.
Forgive yourself for being human – living with flaws and faults.
Do you want to
- improve the writing experience,
- improve the writing process,
- manage your time, and
- cope with the anxiety of writing?
Sometimes perfectionism can be helpful–but, it can also work against you. If you find it’s holding you back, check out the materials below for strategies to help you:
MODULES AND RESOURCES: Perfectionism in Writing
Writing is about both the experience (a habit you can learn!) and the process (you’ll get there, step by step).
Strategies for managing your time; Strategies for coping with writing anxiety; The what and how of growth mindsets; How to let go (or, Strategies to help you stop writing)
Before you begin, think about the meaning of each of the following:
What is perfect? Without flaw, faultless. Montaigne says, “perfection is a walk with god.”
What is writing? The act of recording (v.); a literary piece (n.). That is, writing is both a process and a product.
What is perfectionism? The uncompromising pursuit of excellence.
What is “good enough?” A personal standard that may shift depending on circumstances, such as the work’s importance, the internal and external resources currently available, the costs of doing “better.”
When perfectionism works against you
The tendency toward perfectionism may be undermining you and your work if it leads you to…
- Feel self-conscious about the writing process,
- Feel dissatisfied with the quality of the product (incomplete and completed),
- Feel judged about the writing,
- Feel distressed,
- Have difficulty starting to write,
- Have difficulty finishing writing,
- Work at the last minute: you may miss sleep or other obligations in order to complete writing, or you may not have time for proof reading, and/or
- Avoid submitting writing for grading or review.
Other issues are sometimes mislabeled as perfectionism, such as confusion about what is expected in the assignment, avoidance of academic work, a lack of confidence, an unfamiliarity with how to write, and poor time allotment.
It’s important to think critically about the reason(s) behind your difficulty with a writing assignment. Do you understand what you are expected to do? What the steps are? How to start? Do you believe you have the skills and resources necessary to complete the task? Do you have enough time?
What are your strengths as a writer?
- Word usage and clarity?
- Making connections among ideas?
- Developing an argument?
- Writing to build or maintain enthusiasm for an idea?
Image courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.
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