Leadership Caffeine™: Prepare Your Mind to Conquer Presentation Anxiety

A Cup of Leadership CaffeineFew phrases are capable of sending shivers down a person’s spine, like,  “Bob or Mary, why don’t you present your ideas at our next meeting.”  Except perhaps, “Bob or Mary,” why don’t you present your ideas at our next Board of Directors meeting.

For some people, this seemingly golden opportunity to show and share is akin to receiving a prison sentence with no hope for parole.

Speaking as Cruel and Unusual Punishment?!

While never seeking to engage in cruelty by invitation to present, I’ve had people tell me (after the fact) that they basically shut down from the time they were “invited” to present until it was over.

One individual volunteered that during the weeks leading up to the board presentation, he suffered from a number of symptoms, including sleeplessness, grinding of teeth, loss of appetite, disengagement from family, feelings of excessive stress and finally, a rolling wave of panic attacks.  While he did a great job, that’s not a desirable or sustainable process for anyone to have to deal with when it comes to preparing to present.

Most everyone would agree that the extreme fear of speaking in front of a group is not rational, yet, for those so afflicted, the fear is every bit as real as if the judge was handing down the sentence and offering the choice between execution and delivering the speech. Many people would hesitate on making that call. “Hmmm, if I choose the former, I can skip the presentation.”

While part of me wants to say, “man up,” or some other gender appropriate, much more politically correct phrase for “grow some,” (oops), I can’t.  I consistently spend 10 hours per week and often 20 in front of groups ranging from workshops to keynotes to classes, and my journey from something resembling the individual above to someone that truly loves and seeks out opportunities to engage an audience, is all too fresh in my mind.

No amount of cajoling will help someone overcome his or her fear of speaking. This is an intensely personal foe that is difficult to wrestle to the ground and pin. While there is some oft-repeated and worthwhile advice, ranging from hiring a coach to joining organizations such as Toastmasters, I’ve observed that a good number of people have learned to manage their anxiety by focusing on preparing their minds.

6 Starter Ideas for Coping With and Even Conquering Presentation Anxiety:

1. Learn from Ben Franklin.  Draw a line down the center of a blank piece of paper and label the left “positives” and the right “negatives.”  Over the course of the next few days, jot down all of the good things that will accrue to you from developing your skills as a presenter as well as all of the negatives.  Return to the list daily, add new ideas and cross off those that have no basis in reality.  For example, “I’ll be fired immediately” for whiffing on the presentation is not going to happen.  Neither will you be bound, have an apple stuffed in your mouth and roasted over an open spit.  And I’ve yet to fall through a trap door on a stage.  The positive list will be much longer…much more rational and this is where you should focus your mind.

2. Turn your thinking around. Develop a fear of not overcoming this bogeyman.  On another sheet of paper, create a list of all of the potentially negative things that will happen if you don’t develop comfort in front of an audience.  Think about an endless cycle of the horrible symptoms described above.  Throw in career derailment, reduced earnings potential and an artificial cap on your ability to succeed.  There are some really great reasons for developing as a speaker and some truly significant implications of shrinking from or shirking this developmental area.

3. Turn your thinking around, part 2. Reorient your perspective to turn developing as an effective and confident speaker into your mountain to climb. You’ve already established the negatives of not succeeding and the positives that accrue from conquering this Mt. Everest.  It’s time to turn this into an all-consuming goal.  Whether you take your inspiration from watching “The Biggest Loser,” (hey, nothing intended here.) or Wimbledon or the Tour De France, make this your event to pursue.

4. Start with some easy practice runs to build confidence.  There are nearly countless opportunities to start practicing in front of groups in your workplace or in your personal life.  Each practice run is an important part of your conditioning.  Set a goal on achieving one opportunity per week in fairly friendly surroundings.  Focus initially on content that you know well or topics that you are passionate about.

5. Learn to plan your message.  I never speak without having first created my message map on a single sheet of paper.  Place your core message at the center, your supporting messages hang off the core and each supporting message is backed by evidence.  Build your update from that template and you will be amazed how much easier this processes becomes.  The preparation of a good message map means that you are not only ready to present your compact in a clear and concise manner, you are also ready to field questions.  The message map is absolutely my best speaking friend.

6. Say it with a smile. As part of your climb up Mt. Everest, learn to manage your emotions.  A simple technique that will help you immediately and that will warm your audience, is to smile while you talk.  Don’t grin like an idiot, but show your warmth and emphasize the smile.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

My intent in this post is to offer hope…and some lifelines for everyone that suffers from Pre-Speaking Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  This is real, and you can shrink from it, shirk it or find a way to shine.  And while there’s a lot more to do than what I outlined in this post, remember, these are lifelines to help you rein in and focus your emotions.  Now enjoy the training and start climbing.  The benefits to you in your career are priceless.

By | 2016-10-22T17:11:51+00:00 June 28th, 2010|Career, Leadership Caffeine|17 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Gwyn Teatro June 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    One of my teachers once theorized that our fear of facing groups of people and presenting directly to them has some primordial beginning.

    According to him, in Neanderthal times, the ancient human went out in search of daily sustenance. Making direct eye contact with others meant that you either *ate* breakfast that day or *became* breakfast that day.

    Somehow, just knowing this made it easier to make my presentations. After all, no one was going to eat me. Besides, if this fear had such deep-seated origins, what I felt when standing to present would probably be no different that what others felt when it was their turn. Solidarity in fear is somehow comforting.

    Thanks for another good read, Art.

  2. Bangalow Accomodation June 29, 2010 at 6:21 am - Reply

    Love the tips on facing your fears about speaking – insightful post. Thank you. Agree that the benefits of being able to speak publicly far outweigh the impetus to get over the fear.

  3. Kent McRee June 29, 2010 at 6:36 am - Reply

    The first time I was asked to present to a group at work I was paralyzed. I just could not get past the fear of not looking or sounding professional. The fear of complete failure and making a fool of myself was overwhelming. I will never forget that experience. The presentation date came and went and I survived my “first time”. It was a little ugly but I made it. What a great learning experience.

    That was over 30 years ago. Since then I have spoken to groups and made many presentations. I welcome the opportunity. I seek out speaking engagements and actually get a kick out of entertaining and informing my audience.

    But there is still a healthy fear that I believe we must have of presenting lest we become complacent and lay an egg on stage. That fear (respect) of the privilege to hold a group’s attention and deliver a meaningful message keeps one focused on preparation and practice.

    A minister once told me that aside from praying in public, speaking in front of a group was scarier than death itself for most people. Overcome that fear and a whole new world opens for the presenter. You discover that you can do something that very few others will EVEN try. That skill makes you valuable and suddenly your opinion matters.

    Like anything else in life overcoming one’s fear of failure is the key to success. Prepare, practice and then go have fun with your audience.

    Thanks. I enjoyed your post.

    • Art Petty June 29, 2010 at 6:39 am - Reply

      Thanks, Kent! You are right…that twinge of anxiety leading up to a presentation is healthy. The overwhelming sense of doom that some people suffer from is definitely worth all of the practice and effort that you suggest. Loved your anecdote and guidance! -Art

  4. Patricia Comer June 29, 2010 at 8:00 am - Reply

    A very good posting, Art! Many of our fears of public speaking can be traced back to our early school days when reading or presenting in front of the class at a time when our reading skills were not that proficient and our classmates could be very “mean” was very traumatic and created an imprint that to this day continues to stick to us like glue as adults. Fear is the oldest survival skill known to all creatures (even for a cockroach). Unfortunately, this kind of fear can be a hindrance in our modern world, but we have the ability to understand our fear, and hopefully, make friends with it.

    Over the years I have had the opportunity to speak publicly in front of large and small groups and in spite of this understanding, I too, get the pre-speaking jitters as well. When I hit the stage or subjected to the hand-holding podium, I immediately look out to the audience and connect to them. I remind myself I want to share my knowledge and they are here to hear my message or lesson for the day. And with that in mind, all the jitters are gone and I actually enjoy myself immensely. The audience will pick up on that, and they too, will enjoy your presentation. This has never failed me!

    • Art Petty June 29, 2010 at 8:10 am - Reply

      Pat, thanks for the thoughtful comment! You make a great point that I did not cover in the post: the audience is always on your side. They want to gain something of value and they are pulling for you to deliver. I’ve had people tell me that it is their perspective that the audience members are scrutinizing every word and hanging on every pause or stutter. While we hear them….we filter them out if the message is valuable! Thanks for commenting, Pat. -Art

  5. Franke James June 29, 2010 at 8:24 am - Reply


    Really enjoyed ALL your tips, especially #5. Learn to plan your message. I’ll use your tip of mind mapping the core message onto one page.

    For me, knowing the message is really the key to overcoming anxiety. If I have a burning desire to communicate a message — and real clarity as to what my message is — I LOVE being on stage.

    My first “big” public speaking event was in 2000. I was speaking and moderating a panel on intellectual property and artists’ rights. I was so nervous. I sweated the details and prepared for two months — I even had my questions for the panel projected behind the panelists so the audience could see exactly what the question was (and spot if the question was dodged).

    By the time I got on stage I was very confident everything would go well… and thankfully, it was a big success. Many speeches later, I’m comfortable with this realization: I am not a seat-of-the-pants-just-wing-it type speaker. I admire people who can go on stage with no notice, but for me, I need to have a clear message to feel great on stage.

    One more tip I could add is to take the time to visit the speaking location beforehand and run through your presentation. That way you can spot the glitches (lighting, microphone, audio, staging, and laptop connection) that could otherwise trip you up.



    Author, Artist, Speaker
    Bothered By My Green Conscience
    Dear Office-Politics, the game everyone plays

    • Art Petty June 29, 2010 at 8:39 am - Reply

      Franke, thank you for sharing your own experiences in the wonderful world of speaking. The message mapping technique has proven so incredibly valuable to me, and I am happy to share it with everyone. My risk goes up if I attempt “seat of the pants,” so as a result, I’m an “over-practicer.” And yes, I go out of my way to follow your last tip and show up ahead of time (usually the night before) to “learn the room.” Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Happy message mapping. -Art

  6. Joe Ludford June 29, 2010 at 10:14 am - Reply

    A long time ago a teacher helping me prepare for a speech told me that I would be the expert on my subject and for that reason I shouldn’t be afraid of what the audience would think. I believed her and it helped a lot.

    My second thought is that “Prepare Your Mind to Conquer … Anxiety” has broad application. Some of us are afraid of interacting with other people because we might trigger an angry reaction that we are anxious to avoid. Preparing mentally for interactions and interacting frequently seems like a good way to dull the fear.

    Subconscious fears handicap us in realizing our full potential. No one in leadership or management talks about that.

    • Art Petty June 29, 2010 at 10:20 am - Reply

      Joe, you had a wise teacher! And yes, I completely agree with you on the broad applicability of “prepare your mind.” This is a common issue with those that fear delivering constructive feedback. You are stimulating thoughts for more posts! Thanks for reading and commenting. -Art

  7. Lorel Sack June 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    This is a great posting. I wish I would have been able to read it BEFORE doing my presentation in class. Patricia really hit the nail on the head for me when she referred back to childhood class experiences. I was a scrawny little bookworm back then and classmates could be and often were very mean. Some of the posts mentioned the pre-speaking anxiety and jitters. Again – BINGO! It does seem for me that the less I think about the actual speaking ahead of time and the more I focus on the preparing of material the better. Once I am actually doing the presenting it doesn’t seem nearly as bad as I have imagined it would be – but I am still very relieved when I am finished. Too much time spent in one’s own head may be a scary place or is it just a bad case of the “what if’s”?

    • Art Petty July 1, 2010 at 11:40 am - Reply

      Lorel, thanks for responding! (Lorel was a student in one of my recent management courses.) First of all, you did great on your presentation! Your prep work definitely worked. The anticipation for me is always much worse than reality. Add passion for your content to knowledge of the material, and all fears quickly melt away. I hope to see you here in the future, Lorel, and of course, I look forward to a future opportunity to hear/see you present! -Art

  8. Hamish Knox July 1, 2010 at 11:33 am - Reply

    Thanks for the tip on message mapping, Art. I plan to start using a message map in my future presentations.

    In my experience, part of what builds fear of presenting is fear of saying “I don’t know.”

    Joe touched on this in his comment above about his teacher saying he would be an “expert” on his subject matter.

    We have built up the societal expectation that if you are speaking on a topic in front of an audience you should be able to answer any question from the audience; however, in this age of information overload, that is simply not possible. Robert Burton touches on this in “On Being Certain.”

    I’m not advocating that a speaker should be totally unprepared to answer questions or rebut points that oppose their position; however, I feel we need to get over the “speaker as expert” mentality that shuts down promising speakers before they start their first PowerPoint slide.

    • Art Petty July 1, 2010 at 11:42 am - Reply

      Hamish, great for you that the message mapping approach resonated! It truly helps. Interesting take on the question issue. As I’ve gained experience, I’ve learned to either deftly deal with questions or bluntly indicate that I don’t know. I’m also eminently capable of turning the question on a particularly obnoxious questioner! : ) I like your thoughts…although my caveat is that if you put it on a slide, you better know it. It’s the stuff off-slide that we have some wiggle room for. Thanks for reading and sharing! -Art

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