Chances are, you’d rather die than do a presentation.
That may sound extreme, but surveys show time and time again that most people are more afraid of public speaking than death. That’s powerful. And what does this say about us as humans? Why does the thought of presenting turn us into awkward, bumbling balls of stress? Why do our hearts race, palms sweat, voices shake, and minds wander right before we get up to speak?
Why is it that we don’t instead get excited about telling our stories, showing off our impressive data, and communicating concepts we're passionate about? Why do our thoughts go something like this:
“I hate presenting. I’m not even good at it.”
“Sigh. PowerPoint is so hard. And it takes forever. I don’t even know when I’m going to have time to build my deck in between all these meetings. There goes my weekend.”
“I need to practice so my voice doesn’t shake. But, I cannot role-play my presentation with my coworkers/boss/family because I’ll feel like a total idiot.”
So you struggle with laying out text and images on each slide, fight your way through PowerPoint's clunky features, slap a bunch of bullets on the slides, and end up reading directly from them on the day of your presentation. In the end, you feel like a total failure because no one seemed interested in what you had to say, anyway. They were checking their phones; staring off into space... someone may have actually yawned. Eeek.
But here’s a thought that may rock your world: You’re not actually afraid of public speaking—you’re afraid of judgement and failure. And being “bad” at presenting? Well, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s get nerdy and break this down a bit, before we get into the three tips to transform you from "Shy Slide-Reader" to "Power Presenter."
why the fear of presenting exists
Fear comes from two places that actually work in concert with each other:
- Your brain
- Your past experiences
We humans have a three-part brain, and our oldest, most ancient part of our brain is what’s known as our Reptilian brain. This controls the most basic functions of our bodies: digestion, breathing, and our survival instinct. (More about your brain, specifically on presentations, here.)
Whenever you perceive something as dangerous—either to your physical survival or your social acceptance—your survival instinct kicks in and produces chemicals that preps your body for fight or flight. These chemicals then divert resources from the executive functions of our brains—which control data, organization, critical and analytical thinking—to our limbs, lungs, and heart.
Ever wonder why your heart races, you get anxious, and can’t think straight right before you get up to present? This is your fight or flight response. You perceive your presentation as dangerous to your physical well-being or your social acceptance with the “tribe.” But where does that fear come from? It comes from our past experiences, and as an extension, our beliefs about presenting.
We feel your pain. In fact, most of us over here at Beautiful.ai hated presenting before we joined the team. Without fail, we’d get anxious; forget what we were going to say; ramble on; experience brain fog; get hyper focused on what we looked like, sounded like, how we were standing, or whether or not our voices were shaking—it was a mess. Some of us still struggle with it today.
Turns out, our individual, traumatic, past experiences led us all to believe that this was a dangerous situation for us to be in. To find the root cause of this belief, let's take a look at our one colleague Kristy's infamous "Bad Book Report" incident circa 1992:
"It was my turn to present a book report, but before I could begin, my crush made fun of me in front of the entire class. Talk about humiliation: 20 kids erupted in laughter, and it took several minutes for my teacher to get everyone to quiet down — all while I was standing up front trying not to cry before I even started my book report. But the damage had already been done. From then on, I associated presenting with deep feelings of judgement and rejection."
Since that 9-year-old experience, Kristy's belief that presenting was dangerous was then hard wired into her brain as a way to keep her safe from this threat in the future. This is actually done via neural pathways on a subconscious level, so it's not like she realizes it’s happening every time her boss says "You're up!" at All Hands Meetings. It’s the magic of our brains, for better or worse.
As social creatures, the fear of judgement and rejection are two of the most powerful fears we can possibly experience. And those fears can keep us from getting what we want and doing things we know we need to do in order to succeed, whether it be starting our own business or asking someone out on a date.
So how do we turn this behavior, these thoughts, these limiting beliefs, around? How do we re-train our brains to accept the belief that presenting isn’t a life-threatening situation and learn to work with fear instead of against it?
Knowing how our brains—and more specifically, fear—works, is a good first step. The next step is taking in these three tips on how to shift your mindset and present like a pro.
Most people view presenting as a performance, which can lead you to believe that you’re being evaluated on your ability to perform. Not so: Presenting is a function of communication... So, how well are you communicating your ideas?
When you turn your POV from performance to communication, things tend to get a little easier. It doesn’t matter if you know the right moment to pause, whether or not you use the full stage, how well you’re dressed—all that matters is how well you’re getting your message across to your audience.
Rehearsing your presentation out loud may prove to be embarrassing (even when you’re alone) or difficult, if moments alone are few and far between. This is a great time to practice rehearsing your presentation in your mind—which offers a one-two punch of practice and positive visualization.
Studies have proven that visualization increases performance because your brain can’t tell the difference from when you’re visualizing something and when you’re actually performing the task. The same goes for presenting: if you can visualize yourself running through your presentation in a calm, confident, and controlled way, you’re more likely to actually be more calm, confident, and controlled during the real deal.
With visualization, you’re not only enforcing new positive beliefs about presenting (that it’s not a threat to your survival), but you’re also telling your brain what you want to happen instead.
Amy Cuddy’s revolutionary book ‘Presence’ will not only change how you think about the mind-body connection, but it’ll make you want to call your mom and apologize for rolling your eyes when she told you to stand up straight.
Cuddy’s extensive research on the mind-body connection shows that how we hold our bodies can help drive our presence, confidence, and overall mindset. Meaning, we can actually become more confident just by how we move and stand.
Mind you, this has nothing to do with how people are perceiving you during your presentation because remember, presenting isn’t about performance. Amy teaches us how our own body posture makes us feel.
In her viral TEDTalk entitled “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” (over 51 million views and counting!), Cuddy explains how we can actually reconfigure our brains and our beliefs based on our posture. She recommends doing “high power” poses for two minutes several times a day in order to “fake it ‘till you become it.”
So before you step into your next meeting, interview, presentation, or high-stress social situation, try the Wonder Woman pose for two minutes. Trust us, it works.