Embrace nerves and ace that presentation

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I’m hardly God’s gift to public speaking. I won’t be doing LinkedIn video or a YouTube channel any time soon. I recently received an invitation from New York to do a course for Skillshare. Very flattering. It’s now on the 2019 to-do list. For now, however, I’m happiest tapping away at my laptop, secure in the knowledge that I can take my time and edit out any nonsense later.

That’s fine. It’s all good.

The slight fly in the ointment is that I write copy for a company which teaches communication skills to schools and businesses. I am also one of their tutors.

This is where occasional imposter syndrome kicks in. Why me? Am I the person to model effective public speaking?

My line, however, is this: ‘If I can do it, anyone can.’ I believe strongly that this art can be taught. You don’t necessarily have to be ‘a natural’. Some ooze confidence about these things. Some get chewed up by nerves.

And this was the subject of my talk when I was recently asked to address 70+ eager business students who turned up on a windy Friday afternoon, in what was their last session of Careers Week at the University of Exeter.

(What follows is a transcript of that presentation.)

‘Don’t be nervous’

This is the refrain I often hear, as if you can turn off the nerves like a tap.

I’d like to stand up for nerves, however.

I’m nervous now. But then again, nerves are a perfectly human response to an unusual situation. I stand here in an unfamiliar setting, alone, in front of I don’t know how many people I don’t know.

Unless you’re a stand-up comedian or a politician, this is not your everyday experience. The more unfamiliar a situation, the more nerve-wracking it can be.

The reality is that public speaking is people’s number one fear.

Where does that place death? Second place, in actual fact. At a funeral, people would prefer to be in the coffin than at the altar giving the eulogy.

‘There are two types of speaker: those who get nervous and those who are liars.’
Mark Twain

I have, however, just broken the golden rule of public speaking

Don’t begin by saying you are nervous.


Nerves are contagious. If someone says they’re nervous, everyone gets nervous.

Nerves are a bit like your family

  • Unpredictable.
  • Okay in small doses.
  • Turn up when you least want them to.
  • They want to be there at the big events of your life: birthday parties, graduations, weddings


  • They keep you humble. Keep you grounded. Keep you honest.
  • They are part of what makes you you.
  • They also make you stronger.
  • They keep you on your toes, make you alert.

Nerves show you care.

Let’s reconcile ourselves to nerves

We’ve evolved as a species to react in a certain way to threatening situations. When threatened, the fight or flight mechanism kicks in in the form of adrenaline.

Nerves are normal. Nerves are good in the right doses. Like a shot of 1,3,7 trimethylxanthine (it’s more common name is at the end of the article), it readies you for peak performance.

Like your family, by and large, they want to help.

Furthermore, you learn, as you get older, how best to deal with your family and then hopefully they take you less by surprise...maybe.

Or you arrange your life so that you never have to deal with too many of them for too long.

So, how to deal with excessive (debilitating) nerves?

Practise/rehearse so that you really get to know your material and its delivery becomes automatic.

Practise with your friends and family.

Practise because presentations might not be something you are used to.

I was a teacher for a long time. I loved classroom teaching because it was something that I did every day; I hated presenting school assemblies because I wasn’t used to audiences of this size.

Practise with your closest friend, whom you spend most of your waking hours with...

I mean, of course, your mobile phone.

(Did you know that it takes us on average 15 minutes to turn to our phones in the morning?)

Make a video

This makes us all wince, but it is so valuable. Why?

It means you can see how your body language works, or doesn’t! You can then iron out awkward mannerisms – you have to see them to believe them!

Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

Nervous energy takes on many strange forms

  • pacing
  • fidgeting and fiddling with things
  • un/clenching fists
  • altering your clothing or your hair

And let’s not forget dad dancing!

(Top tip: decide what you’re going to do with those pesky hands and those dancing feet!)

Some handy tips include

  • Glue your feet to the floor, or move only so as to punctuate key moments of your presentation
  • Use what’s to hand: is there a lectern on which to rest your hands?
  • Use nervous hands for maximum effect – gesticulate

Remember: it won’t be obvious if you are nervous.

Shaky hands are one of the few signs of nerves, so use cue cards, which make shaky hands less apparent.

Fake it till you make it

‘Even if you aren’t sure of yourself, pretend that you are, because it makes it clearer for everyone else.’
Anna Wintour

A dose of realism – remind yourself:

  • The audience wants you to succeed.
  • You have a unique perspective on the world that is yours alone.
  • Most people say that their nerves disappear as they speak.
  • Among the audience are future friends. You just don’t know it yet.
  • What’s the worst that can happen? You read from your speech – badly – and then it’s over.
  • A bad speech never killed anyone.

Don’t use words like ‘speech’ or ‘presentation’ if they make you feel nervous

If you are nervous, see your presentation as a conversation or talk...

...to the friendliest faces in the audience.

- they’re the most deserving anyway.

And if there aren’t any friendly faces, pretend you’re making eye contact with everyone when really you’re just letting your gaze float around the room...

...like a very contented, unhurried butterfly.

Once you ease into the talk, and get your bearings, you’ll soon find yourself making genuine and engaging eye contact.

Imagine that someone has just asked you a question, and you are simply answering it.

On the day...

...you’ll feel less nervous if you...

  • Know where you’re going
  • Have been to the venue before
  • Look smart
  • Arrive early
  • Have a wander/do a recce
  • Relax
  • Have fun
  • Smile
  • Emulate positive body language

Other physical realities

Stomach rumbles

– eat, but not too much

(actors and sportsmen alike love bananas)

Dry mouth

– have a bottle of water to hand.

Need the toilet

– go!

(Disclaimer: none of this is rocket science, but when nerves get the better of us, we forget.)

Just before the presentation...

...channel your nervous energy, somewhere that is not distracting for the audience.

Better to get rid of some of the energy BEFORE rather than DURING the presentation.

Experienced actors know to do this methodically. They pace, but with purpose. I’ve seen some do press-ups. They play games.

Experiment – learn from experience. What works for you?

And, finally, during the presentation

Start slowly.

Start strongly.

Start with your best bits.

You’re likelier to get a good response from the audience.

And then everyone relaxes.

Photo by Emmanuel Zua on Unsplash


1,3,7 trimethylxanthine is more commonly known as caffeine.