02 Dec 2021

Overcoming the fear of presenting


It's entirely normal to feel nervous about presenting - so normal in fact that it frequently appears in the top three of our greatest fears. But knowing it's a universal fear isn't a great deal of help to the increasing numbers of us for whom presenting is a regular and non-negotiable part of our job.

The good news is that it is possible to overcome the fear and even start to enjoy the prospect of connecting with audiences. The bad news is that there are no short cuts to becoming a great presenter.

Yes of course, people like me can set you on the right path and give you lots of ways to improve your performance, but the tough yet undeniable truth is that if you want to look effortless, it's going to take effort. I'm sorry - it's not much of an inspirational message, is it?

Aren't some people just naturally good at presenting?

Name me anyone who is ‘naturally good at presenting' and I'll show you someone who has put in the work refining and rehearsing until they're totally on top of their material.

All the people who we think of as great - Steve Jobs, Michelle Obama, nearly everyone on TED talks - didn't start out that way, but they knew it mattered and were willing to put in the effort to improve.

I often come across people who worry that practicing will kill their natural style. But let's take the example of a stand-up comedian. They might sound spontaneous but every joke, every beat, has been tried out and tweaked until it does the job of connecting with the audience in the best possible way.

Being unprepared increases your fear

Unpreparedness is the best friend of fear. Entering a situation feeling ill-equipped kicks our brain into survival mode, floods us with adrenaline and redirects our blood supply from the brain to the limbs. If your heart is going like a piston and you can barely remember your name let alone your key points, you're setting yourself up to fail spectacularly. In contrast, familiarity sends the signal to your brain ‘we've got this'; your breathing slows and you're able to focus on the job in hand. And more importantly, so are your audience.

Respect your audience

Dolly Parton once memorably said: “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap” and in the same paradoxical way, it takes a lot of work to appear relaxed. Looking relaxed really is your baseline if you want to have an impact on your audience. Watching someone who looks like they'd rather be almost anywhere else than the space their presenting in is an uncomfortable experience. The best they can hope for is pity and that's rarely the recipe for a strong business relationship.

Putting in the effort shows respect for the people who've turned up to hear you. The best possible version of you is not the one who's making it up as they go along. You have something to say that's worth hearing. So, in the wise words of Dolly:

“Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”