Nervous and Anxious about Work Presentations? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I read your article called Terrified about Doing a Presentation at Work? and I am writing to see if I can get some help.

I have spent 23 years in the IT industry and am still nervous about presenting. I have challenges remembering the right words during the presentation. I tend to rush and get it over with. I get the feeling the audience is going to attack me. I’m also fearful of running out of time. What if I can’t answer a question?

I have a tendency to say yes to everything. I don’t like to beat around the bush; hence, my communication is more direct. I have lot of energy, which is a problem because I get excited and it increases my anxiety. I get stressed out if I am tasked to do a presentation alone but if I am a co-author and co-presenter, I am a bit more comfortable. 

I attended a few Toastmasters sessions, but those are generally for speeches that are prepared and rehearsed. I can do five-minute speeches with no problem. But doing a tech presentation is a challenge because there is so much detail involved. I am also thinking my age could be the cause of my inability to remember things.

Still Anxious

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Dear Still Anxious,

I hate to say it, but you may always be nervous. Some people just never get comfortable with presenting. I still get incredibly nervous when I have to present, and my husband does, too. We call it the Wave. The Wave starts the day before. You just have to ride the nerves until the moment you start, and then leave it behind. I almost never sleep the night before a big presentation.

The fear won’t kill you. The key is to not let it control you.

Based on what I hear from clients, people who have trouble presenting think it should be easy because some people make it look easy. Don’t be fooled. It is isn’t easy for anyone who cares deeply about being organized, coherent, and useful. It is a ton of work.

Let’s start with remembering the right words. To me, this is all about preparation and rehearsal. As you say yourself, in Toastmasters when you are prepared and rehearsed you have no problems. So when you know you are going to have to present, take the time to work on your slides. Walk through them at least 3 times, speaking the points out loud. (Doing it in your head doesn’t count—you don’t hear how well your language works unless it is out loud.) Figure out the key points as you go. My memory is hopeless and always has been, so I print out my slides three to a page and write the key points next to each slide.

Because you get yourself into such a muddle, you might want to prepare handouts for each person in the audience. This gives people something to look at other than you and it gives you a way to provide in-depth answers to questions you anticipate without having to remember every little detail.

If you are going into a meeting where you know you will be asked questions, but you aren’t presenting per se, it will serve you to:

I think part of what has you so worked up is that you think you have to have all the answers, perfect, all the time. You can let that expectation go. You’re only human.

Preparation and rehearsal will also help you to manage your concern that you might run out of time. The best way to help yourself is to break your presentation down into shorter sections with Q & A at the end of each section. Your prepared presentation should only take about 55% of the time you have so you’ll have plenty of time for questions. The worst case is that you will have time left over—and nobody minds that.

Is this time consuming? Indeed. And you are going to spend all that time obsessing anyway, so you might as well spend it preparing, which will lower your anxiety by 100%.

You mention that you have a lot of energy and get excited, which adds to your anxiety. Managing energy is half the battle for many. It would probably help you stay on a more even keel if you were able to release some energy before a high-pressure meeting. Take a walk or a jog, do yoga, practice meditation—whatever calms you down. Exercise tends to really help with that. A few other little tips will help you as well:

Having too much energy is so much better than not having enough. Talking too fast is better than too slow. Just stay focused on others, and on your material.

Now let’s talk about your anxiety. You say it causes you to rush and to be overly direct, and that you fear you literally might be attacked. I once worked in an organization where it was a badge of honor if you could make someone else cry. What a crazy place to work! I mention this because my question is: what evidence do you have that you might be attacked? Is your concern rational because it actually happens that people attack each other in these meetings? Or is it irrational—just your anxiety talking? If it is a norm in your organization that people attack each other, I think you just have to be prepared. Think of yourself as a warrior who is prepared to defend yourself, and remind yourself that you aren’t going to die. You know who the bullies are and probably can predict how they will attack you. You can come to the meeting with a prepared handout just for those people.

If it is really just your anxiety, it’s good to remind yourself of that as well. You must find ways to calm yourself down. Right now you are anxious about being anxious, which causes your brain to release adrenaline and cortisol and then more of it. Your autonomic nervous system gets highjacked and makes you feel like you are going to die. The best way I know to stop the spiral and calm down is to use your breathing. You don’t have to be a meditation master. You just have to pay attention to your breath and be intentional about it.

Try this:

On a count of 3, breathe in through your nose. Release the breath on a count of 6.

Repeat at least 2 more times, or as much as needed.

I learned this from my daughter who has taught it to her 13-year-old students. If they can do it, so can you. It works. It short circuits the fight-or-flight response in the brain and helps you get hold of yourself.

Okay. Now allow me to yell at you for the ageist attitude about your memory. Cut it out. It isn’t age. It is that you have too much stuff in your head and you have run out of room. That’s my story and I am sticking to it. But seriously, come on. You really do have a lot going on, so if you are having trouble remembering a ton of technical detail, write it down. Have it on your phone, your tablet, or print it out. Just lower your standards about needing a brain like a supercomputer and take care of yourself.

I know a lot about this—I have always had a very odd memory. I can remember the name of a client’s childhood dog but not where the client worked. So I developed memory aids long ago, in high school, and I still use them. I feel bad for people who have always had an amazing memory but now have too much to remember and no coping mechanisms. So start writing notes to yourself. Keep a book or journal. Whatever you need to do. And stop calling yourself old.

Prepare. Rehearse. Breathe. Repeat. You will be okay.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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