Coping with Presentation Anxiety, Stage Fright, & Panic Attacks
January 20, 2014
Several years ago, Hollywood director Michael Bay walked on stage at CES in Las Vegas to say a few words about his work and to praise the new 105-inch curved TV by Samsung. However, things did no go as planned, and Bay, who seemed uncomfortable right from the beginning, left the stage before his presentation ever really got started. This incident was a hot topic on social media at the time and many people were quite unkind to Bay. Still, most people could empathize, or at least sympathize with the man. It does not matter if you are rich and famous or a complete unknown, everyone has their own fears to deal with. The only reason I bring up the Michael Bay presentation is because I hope that incident will remind people that (1) presentation is not easy, (2) fears or anxieties regarding public speaking are normal and affect almost everyone, and (3) it's better to prepare well and speak from the heart rather than to read a script off a teleprompter.
Let me out of here!
Merriam-Webster defines a Panic Attack in part as "...an episode of intense fear or apprehension that is of sudden onset and may occur for no apparent reason or as a reaction to an identifiable triggering stimulus [such] as a stressful event." Whatever we call what Bay was feeling at the time, many of us can relate. In fact, many years ago I went through something very similar to what Michael Bay experienced. In my case, I was in Japan and half way through a presentation on stage in front of a large group when my brain just froze up while I was trying to read a short quote in Japanese. I knew the Kanji (Chinese characters) on the screen, but I obviously did not know them as well as I thought and suddenly I felt like I was having a stroke. My talk was completely derailed and I became so nervous that I seriously considered just walking off stage. My fight-or-flight response had fully kicked in. I was absolutely in a state of panic. I managed to just skip ahead in my presentation to a place where I could regain my control. I knew this looked bad but it was better than walking away, though I would never blame anyone for doing so.
In graduate school I actually did walk away in the middle of a panel discussion. The room was absolutely packed and quite hot. While another panelist was speaking—I was up next—I was suddenly overcome with irrational fear. I just quietly got up and exited the room. People probably just thought I was going to the bathroom, but in fact I was "running away" from the situation. My heart was pounding. After a few minutes in the hallway alone jumping up and down, stretching, and then deep breathing, I managed to calm down enough to walk back in and rejoin the panel. I was fine in the end, but the unexpected panic attack worried me for years until I found out through study and experience that it was normal. Although I do not suffer from panic attacks while presenting any longer, assuming I have prepared, I do—like so many other people—have to cope with claustrophobia, acrophobia, and a good deal of irrational worrying about flying.
Happens to everyone
As you become accustomed to public speaking and presenting over time you will grow more comfortable and able to be more natural, letting "the real you" come out. But if you are still quite nervous about the idea of presenting in front of others, don't worry, virtually every confident and engaging presenter you see today was at some point earlier in their careers much less sure of themselves in front of a live audience. For example, this clip features Steve Jobs getting ready for a live TV appearance when he was in his early 20s in 1978. This clip is confirmation that everyone can get better and become more relaxed and comfortable with time. But it's also a reminder that it is perfectly OK and absolutely natural for you to feel nervous in front of an audience.
Can you ever be 100% comfortable?
In a great little documentary called Comedian (a must for any public speaker) Jerry Seinfeld had this to say about getting more comfortable on stage: "You’re never really comfortable. Even though you may think you are... you really aren’t.” But in time, Seinfeld says, "you learn how to open, how to sustain, how to pace...” and you will get more comfortable. In the Naked Presenter book (2011) I touched on the issue of nerves. In that chapter a nice two-page callout section was written by my buddy in Australia Les Posen. Les is a Clinical Psychologist practising in Melbourne who uses his knowledge of the cognitive sciences to help presenters deliver their best possible presentations. Below is an excerpt from his contribution to the Naked book which appears on pages 92-93.Five tips for dealing with presentation nerves by Les Posen
"Starting about 60,000 years ago, our brains developed a marvelous system of providing us with remarkable defenses against environmental threats. Sometimes, those defenses are set-and-forget types, such as automatically blinking when a bug hits your windscreen, even though you “know” you’re protected. Other times, an evolutionary newer part of our brain where we make decisions and plans—the part that makes us most human—warns us of an upcoming threat. In the case of presenting, it might be fears of not connecting, or of our ideas not being accepted, or of going blank in front of 500 pairs of eyes. In historical terms, we still possess the fear of what it means to be stared at by so many people: Either we are the monarch, or more likely, we are the next sacrifice! Through evidence-based research and practice, clinical and performance psychologists have developed ways to help suppress these learned and ingrained fears, especially when we know we can perform well if only we give ourselves the chance.
There are five interventions I teach and want to share with you:
1. Chunking and exposure. Identify and break down your presenting challenges into small manageable chunks, and deliberately expose yourself to each of them step by step.
2. Rehearsal. Beyond just practicing your slide timings, actually visualize and hear yourself say the words with your slides. You see yourself in front of the crowd and rehearse your presentation to a variety of audience reactions, both positive and negative.
3. Self-talk. Anxiety grabs onto self-critical talk such as “I’ll do a terrible job. What happens if the slide show fails. What happens if they don’t laugh at my jokes.” Your task is not to feed your anxiety with this type of talk, but to change it into “I can do this. I will follow my rehearsed plans. This is manageable.”
4. Arousal control via diaphragmatic breathing. Calm your brain’s fear center with slow, deliberate breaths with slightly longer exhales. Slower rhythm (rather than deep breathing) is helpful for fear management.
5. Deliberate practice. Practice your beginning, identify challenging concepts, and practice, practice, practice—out loud.
These techniques work, and I use them myself as well as with clients. They are powerful and will prove useful in scenarios other than presenting."
The tips from Les Posen above are not the last word on dealing with presentation anxiety, but these bits of advice can certainly help. One of the biggest tips to remember as well is to be well prepared. A big source of difficulty comes when speakers simply have not prepared. The only thing scarier than presenting in front of a crowd is doing so while being ill-prepared and unsure of yourself and your content.
A side note: Michael Bay did say the next day in an interview that he would have been incapable of "winging" it since the plan was for him to read text that Samsung had prepared for him, not his own words. Moreover, the script, he said, was being changed at the last minute. This obviously was a very bad idea. Even if things had gone perfectly as planned, it would have been a dry, unnatural and underwelming speech to say the least.
Thank you so much for posting what I feel is the best piece on presentation anxiety I have ever read.
No matter how long you do it sometimes fear just jumps on your back. I gave a presentation two years ago to about 400 marines, as I walked on stage I was blow away at how full the auditorium was and how quite it was. You could actually hear a pin drop.
I snapped out of the paralysis by doing a couple of key things.
1. Took a deep breath held it in then slowly let it out.
2. Said hello and introduced myself as if we were old friends.
3. Said "wow there are a lot you out there! Please be kind if I look nervous.
4. Said what I felt about the material and how much they would enjoy this talk.
I went through my presentation without a hitch save a moment that I blanked and then just took stock in where I was in the story and picked up right away.
Posted by: Don Mirra-Commercial-Photography | January 21, 2014 at 06:54 AM
It looks like the link "the next day in this interview" is broken, can you give us a hint of where we can find the interview?
Posted by: Eric de Rochefort | January 21, 2014 at 05:53 PM
Eric, thanks for the heads up. Link is fixed now. It is a TMZ video (so it's a tad bit insufferable): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdEcRNSrJD4
Posted by: garr | January 21, 2014 at 09:50 PM
Finally someone pointing out the importance of speaking from the heart. At least, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to talk about something you don´t believe in that should be an indicator for better preparation.
In any case, all my sympathy to Mr. Bay
Posted by: Truckyforme | January 22, 2014 at 08:53 PM
Valid points about anxiety. For me, imaging them naked actually worked...Combined with the right diet of herbs.....
Posted by: Marc | October 06, 2015 at 10:37 AM