One of the most effective ways to combat nerves in the hours and minutes before a business pitch or other presentation, an interview, a lecture, or even a training course if you’re an anxious trainer, is to concentrate on the content. Tune into what you’re going to tell people and connect with your central message.
In a lecture about stagecraft that I attended recently, the speaker told us that in his first year at drama school he and a fellow student had been asked to improvise the subtext of a particular scene. They felt self-conscious performing in front of the class and it was an awkward experience for everyone. After a few minutes, the teacher stopped them and asked them instead to pretend they were playing tennis. Miming a realistic game took such concentration that they were soon absorbed in what they were doing and their inhibitions vanished like time when you’re having fun.
Focusing outside yourself frees you from your undermining worries. This is an established psychological phenomenon that’s well worth remembering in times of stress. By engaging the practical, analytical part of your brain, you forget your unproductive fear as you get to grips with solving the problem, answering the question, carrying out the task. Whether you’re confronting a fear of heights, of spiders or of public speaking, the principle is the same and it works every time.
A client of mine, whom I’d been helping to prepare for a public debate, reported great success as a result of forcing herself to concentrate on the content. As she listened to what her opponents were saying, she became so incensed by their arguments and attitude that she completely forgot to be scared and got stuck into setting them straight.
If you’ve got something interesting and useful to share with the audience, that is what’s important. It’s not about you, it’s about the audience and how you can help them by telling them whatever it is they’ve come to hear. (And, by the way, if you haven’t got anything at least interesting, if not useful, to offer your audience, I suggest you rethink your involvement in this event.) Take the spotlight off you and shine it on the audience. Then concentrate on putting your message across and let that lift you out of your anxiety.