Good to know when you are nervous

A friend of mine plays the oboe. Each and every time we attend one of her performances it sounds flawless and truly impressive. Literally, not a false note to be found.

Following the concert, when we tell her how amazing we thought it was, she will often respond ‘Well, I missed that note and that one.’ As a musician she focusses on each of the mistakes she made, whereas I didn’t notice a thing.

That anecdote reveals a valuable insight that can also be applied to presentations: there is a big difference between what you notice as a performer and what your audience takes away from it.

Take a look at these 3 statements you can draw on in times of stress and stage fright:

1. The audience does not notice how nervous you are

Here is an exercise we often do during our performance workshop: someone presents and afterwards is asked to indicate with a score out of 10 how nervous he/she felt. People will often give themselves an 8 or 9 out of 10.

Then we ask the same of the audience. They will usually give a score of 4 out of 10. A big difference.

This shows that your audience rarely sees how nervous you really are. So, you shouldn’t worry about it and certainly not express it. By saying ‘Wow, I’m so nervous’ at the beginning of a presentation, you are unnecessarily breaking yourself down. Your audience won’t pick up on this anyway.

But what if they do notice that you are nervous by your shaky voice or red spots on your neck? That too is ok. An audience looks past that. If your story is well constructed and you deliver it with passion, no one really minds you being nervous.

2. The audience doesn’t know if you forget to say something

Sometimes speakers are stressed because they’re afraid they’ll forget to say something. This typically happens when you have your text fully written out and study it by heart. Suddenly, you’re one sentence in and realize you skipped a sentence. Oh no!

You may now feel the urge to go back in your argument. But that’s not always the smart thing to do. You will make yourself extra nervous by scrolling back through slides, people may lose the thread of your story, and you will quickly fall out of the flow of your own presentation.

A key insight is that people rarely realize that you forgot to tell them something. You may have fully written out your presentation and practiced it a dozen times, but your audience is hearing it for the first time. If a sentence is dropped, chances are this will go by unnoticed.

Sometimes you may forget essential information that does need to be mentioned, but you can often insert this at a later time in your story. I usually do one of the following:

  • If I set aside time for questions in between or at the end of the presentation, I wrap the essential info in a question that I answer myself. For example, suppose I forgot to tell you how to handle a presentation to a mixed audience of experts and non-experts. Then during the question round, that will become, ‘A question I often get on this topic, is how to handle a presentation for a mixed audience correctly, …’
  • If the presentation is longer and there is a break, then I sometimes give the information before the start of the second part: ‘What I forgot to tell you before the break is how best to handle a presentation for a mixed audience…’.
  • Sometimes you can still take a small step back in your presentation. Just make sure the jump is not too big. Yes: ‘That concludes the bit about the audience. Finally, what I would like to add to that is how you can best handle a mixed audience.’ No: ‘That concludes our bit about slides. But I just remembered that I wanted to add something about how to deal with a mixed audience.’

However, often there is absolutely no need to include forgotten info. Compare it to my friend who, following her performance, says that she played several mistakes. She practiced that piece a hundred times and knows which notes were off. As for me, I don’t have a clue. I simply see or hear a terrific performance.

3. The audience wants to see you succeed

Finally, one last tip that will make a world of difference: change your perspective about your audience.

You may view your audience as a ‘hostile’ force. As people who are looking to give you bad marks, judge you, send out a mean tweet about your presentation, who certainly don’t want to have coffee with you after the event.

In fact, the opposite is true: an audience is usually quite forgiving of a mistake or jittery nerves. They are on your side and want to hear what you have to say.

So, change your perspective from ‘hostile’ to ‘friendly’ audience. It will do wonders for your nerves.

Want to know more about stress, nerves and performance?

How do you give a confident impression on stage and in front of the webcam with stress raging through your body? Check out our performance workshop, that is specifically aimed at people who need to explain a complex research or project. Come discover our practical tips on body language, voice projection, and interaction. And get ready to implement each of those tips right away.