Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Common Misconceptions about Handling Nerves

While well intended, some advice from bosses or your colleagues might have left you feeling frustrated or confused about how to deal with nerves.  As a result, a significant number of people I have coached feel inadequate when this advice does not work – which then erodes  your confidence further and can escalate your nervous reaction.  So I thought to start with a popular misconception, followed by a solution, tips on using it and why it can work.

Common Misconception: “Just look over people’s heads” This makes sense on the surface, but avoidance tactics like this one simply reinforce your nervous reaction. It also tends to make the presenter look disconnected and stiff. For most people, becoming more comfortable with presenting is a process that requires trying different things and taking small risks to move toward the direction of better control and comfort.

Solution: Instead, try getting into the mindset that you are only having a conversation with one person at a time.  To do this, you speak to and look at one person until you have communicated an idea or thought. You literally only focus on that person, to the point that you are not paying attention to anyone else in the room, at that moment.  You will look at each audience member during the presentation, but individually, not as a group.

When you use this technique, the presentation can feel more like a conversation to you and the audience.  You will find that the audience also becomes more responsive (i.e. nodding, reacting, smiling), which can be more reassuring than talking to a blank wall of faces.  

For many people this idea works for them almost immediately because part of their nervous trigger comes from the feeling of being the center of attention. For others, it might take a bit more time and effort, however it is well worth the effort since embracing this technique can create a lasting change for you.  There can be a few challenges: Some people worry when they first start using this approach that they are staring at one person for too long, and question if it is uncomfortable for the audience member. This usually is a sign that the presenter is not comfortable with this level of eye contact, not the audience member.  Typically, the audience feels that a human being is actually connecting and communicating with them, Vs just getting a data dump.  The more you let them see and experience your personality, the more engaging the meeting is for them.   Having said all of this, if you notice that the person you are looking at breaks eye contact with you frequently, this is a sign they are uncomfortable with that level of attention, so just move onto someone else.

Some people also have trouble staying focused due to their nerves.  Pulling this off depends on your ability concentrate without distraction.  So if you have difficulty, consider working on strengthening your “mental muscle” by taking classes in yoga, tai chi, meditation.  For example in Yoga, there is a simple balancing exercise called the Tree. It is not physically difficult, but if you lose mental focus, you lose your balance. This type of exercise helps you improve concentration and focus.

Pam Bloore


  1. This is really wonderful advice. I resonated with your advice about yoga and the inner arts helping quiet nerves. I never tried using tree pose before a presentation and will give it a go. My trick is to shake around the energy while listening to some wild world beat music.

  2. Alyse, thanks! It is a great idea to expend extra nervous energy prior to a presentation. I know a lot of people who exercise the morning of for the same reason. Stress brings on a biochemical change (increase in cortisol hormone) that is only depleted by exercise.
    Just to clarify if you have not done yoga, that the tree pose is something to build concentration and focus that needs to be practiced over time. So it is not a great "right before" calming tactic. I remember the first time I tried it, it was horrifying to see I had at attention span of a 2 year old! But with practice, I now find when focusing on one person, I really can't be distracted - which is really helpful.