Giving presentations

Presenting to a group of students, colleagues and lecturers is a necessary part of the university experience and for many, the thought of speaking in public can vary from the unsettling to the terrifying. The advice below will help you prepare for your presentation and overcome presentation anxiety.

Presentation anxiety

What is 'presentation anxiety'?

'Presentation anxiety' is a response to a threat to our self-esteem. It shows itself in several ways:

  • Physical signs such as blushing, shaking, stuttering, sweating and mixing up words.
  • Cognitive disturbance such as being muddled, feeling that you're not making sense, losing the thread of your talk.
  • Emotionally, feeling anxious and self-conscious, that people are looking at you, having critical thoughts about you or your presentation.

These feelings can be so unpleasant that we may want to avoid presentations altogether.

Causes of presentation anxiety

  • Our self-esteem is dependent on a mixture of our own appraisal and what we perceive to be the appraisal of others.
  • We particularly value the appraisal of 'significant others' such as family, friends, colleagues, teachers and employer - people whose views we respect or who have some influence in our lives.
  • Concern about what people are thinking causes anxiety, and this anxiety disrupts our performance.
  • A vicious cycle develops - next time your anxiety levels are higher and you are less likely to do well.

Factors which contribute to anxiety

  • You may have been teased for blushing or stuttering at school, or remember times when your ideas were criticised or rejected by the family or in public. An earlier negative experience of presenting yourself can influence how you think and feel about presentations, even in a new context.
  • Being in a situation where others are watching you can trigger anxieties about being judged or rejected that are associated with past experiences.
  • You may pressure yourself with unreasonably high expectations of what you should achieve, particularly if this your first time giving a presentation. So you may be over-critical of your performance and fail to appreciate the things you did well.
  • If you avoid giving presentations it can make things worse because you will never challenge your fear and test your abilities.

Managing presentation anxiety

The key elements of managing your presentation anxiety are to...

  • understand and take control of it
  • practice techniques
  • think positively

Remember that...

  • a degree of anxiety may be useful as it will keep you alert
  • you may not appear as anxious as you feel
  • the person asking you to speak wants you to succeed
  • the audience will not expect perfection
  • going through the experience and surviving it will help to build your confidence

How to prepare for the presentation

Initial preparations

  • Be clear about the aim of the talk and don't be too ambitious.
  • Outline your presentation well before the presentation date and research your topic thoroughly.
  • Allow ample time to prepare visual aids and handouts. Use examples to illustrate your points and use varied ways of displaying data, such as bar graphs, pie charts, spreadsheets and photographs.
  • Make sure your talk is organised. Consider putting the key points onto cards rather than reading it word-for-word. Consider memorising the first minute, or introduction, to help you through this tricky stage of the presentation.
  • Prepare for questions at the end and time the presentation to allow for questions.

Practice on your own

The next step is to put your nervous energy into practicing your prepared and organised presentation.

  • Practice in front of the mirror to observe and correct nervous or inappropriate gestures. Get comfortable with hearing your own voice. Become familiar with its pitch and tone, both of which you can alter to lend variety and interest to your voice.
  • Rehearse the presentation so that you are performance ready: when you are well rehearsed your mind will be in complete control, you will effortlessly know what you will say next and your movements will be relaxed and flowing.
  • Practice using the audio-visual equipment.

Practice in front of a friendly audience

Speaking in a safe environment can build your confidence to speak in front of a more risky audience.

  • If possible, practice in front of a small audience. This could be your roommates, a friend or a family member - even your children!
  • Ask for feedback on both content and delivery.
  • Practice until you are comfortable with every part of the presentation, from start to finish.

The day before the presentation

  • Get some rest.
  • Remember that the audience isn't there to see you. They are there to hear what you have to say. Let go of your self-focused concerns and put your energy into your talk.
  • Think and act positively about the presentation. Visualise a positive audience response: good questions, good eye contact, interested faces and so on.

On the day of the presentation

Initial preparations

Even though you are well-prepared, you may still feeling anxious. Perhaps your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty and your breathing is erratic.

To reduce these symptoms...

  • Use up some energy directly before your presentation. Take a brisk walk or do a quick workout. Exercise releases endorphins into your blood stream and catecholamines into your brain which help relax you.
  • Use positive self-talk to build your confidence rather than feed into your doubts. Tell yourself you have an interesting and well-prepared presentation and that no-one is expecting you to be perfect.
  • Practice breathing. When you are scared, you tend to take short superficial breaths from your chest rather than long and deep breaths which come from your abdomen. Good breathing can help develop a strong, confident-sounding voice.
  • Avoid drugs of any sort (alcohol, stimulants, caffeine) as they can impair your performance by raising tension and lowering concentration

Near the time of the presentation

  • Arrive early and familiarise youself with the room and your position. If possible, adjust the seating, heating and lighting to your liking.
  • Check that the audio-visual equipment is working and have any supporting materials and handouts ready to hand.
  • Don't use the last few moments to prepare further; be content with what you have prepared.
  • Say 'hello' to people as they arrive. Consider talking to them to develop a rapport, eg ask them about seating, lighting, or ventilation.
  • Do not displace tension by feigning a relaxed pose - maintain freedom of movement with your posture. Keep your knees flexed, your head focused and your feet flat on the floor.
  • While waiting to start, take several calming deep slow breaths. The oxygen provides the fuel for your voice, is the source of your energy, calms you down and helps you to concentrate.

Getting started

  • Just before you begin, take a deep breath.
  • Introduce yourself and give the subject of your talk.
  • Consider deflecting the attention away from you in your opening. For example, you might tell a joke, ask a question, ask the audience to write a short reflection on your topic or put up an interesting slide.

During your presentation

You will start to relax as you get into your topic and see that your audience is interested in what you are saying.

  • Tension will cause you to speak faster than usual, so slow your speech down. It will also help you to feel in control.
  • Tune out distractions from outside, and possibly from your audience talking to each other.
  • Interact with your audience, through maintaining eye contact and asking questions.
  • Be concerned about your audience getting your message, not about your gestures, how you're standing, how your hair is fixed etc.
  • If you notice that you are tensing up, take a slow deep breath and continue with your talk - people will not notice.
  • Remember that everyone makes mistakes. If you forget what you are saying or mix up your words, acknowledge it and smile.

Towards the end of the presentation

  • Summarise key points if appropriate.
  • At the end, invite questions and discussion. Try asking open questions such as "What are your views of these findings?" or "How many of you have been faced with a similar situation? How did you handle it? What worked? What didn't?"

After the presentation

  • Appreciate your efforts and your achievement.
  • Don't criticise yourself for every mistake you spotted.
  • Think realistically about what you might do differently next time.
  • Consider asking one or two colleagues for constructive feedback.

Getting advice

If you are concerned with any of the issues raised or would like to talk through things further, the University can offer support and help.

You may be uncertain about what sort of help you may need, however, there are a variety of different kinds of support available through Student Services. Please do make contact with the service that you think would be of most use to you.

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