You’re often nervous when it’s your turn to get up to speak. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a packed auditorium or a small conference room with less than a dozen colleagues: your palms sweat, your mouth feels dry, and your heart races.
This type of response is aggravating, but also aggravatingly predictable—and you can blame evolution for that.
Hunters And Gatherers (But Not Orators)
Just for a second, forget the presentation you’ll have to give tomorrow. Close your eyes and image yourself 25,000 years ago, creeping through the scrub with a few members of your tribe. You’re out hunting, and it’s dangerous business. That pit in your stomach reminds you there are predators out there, and even your prey could turn on you at any moment. Your senses are heightened, your muscles tense.
Human beings have dominated the planet because we can cooperate, not because of any physical gifts that make us fearsome creatures. Many of the animals our early ancestors encountered would’ve had advantages in terms of size, speed, and the ability to fight with their bodies. But it was humans’ ability to work together and create tools that allowed us to make it.
Because our social interactions are so crucial for survival, we developed psychological mechanisms that support our ability to cooperate. Languages, for one, are sophisticated communication systems allowing us to transmit complex concepts to others. We also have elaborate and largely unconscious systems for evaluating others’ competence and trustworthiness. After all, if you’re going out on a hunt, you’d like to know you can rely on the people you bring with you.
In the modern world, all these social mechanisms come into play in public speaking. Standing in front of a group gives everyone a chance to evaluate your abilities. What if they conclude that you’re not actually that valuable to the team? That could be devastating.
The Cave-Dweller’s Guide To Beating Stage Fright
The social environment has evolved much more quickly than our bodies have; 25,000 years is a long time for humans but not such a long time for evolution. Unfortunately, the stress response we developed in a much different environment is poorly adapted for the pressures of public speaking. Your focus of attention is narrowed. Your working memory capacity (which determines how much information you can hold in mind at once) is diminished. Your muscles are prepped for quick action (which would be helpful, I suppose, if you suddenly had to leap from the stage).
All this might be useful for hunting elk or wild boar, but it’s not so good for thinking on your feet in front of a crowd. Worse yet, stage fright can become self-perpetuating: You’re afraid you’ll screw up part of your presentation, so you do. That increases your anxiety about the next presentation, which can then lead to even more errors.
What can you do? First, you should over-prepare your presentations. Many great speakers can get up on a stage and give a fantastic presentation with little work beforehand. But when you’re first starting out or know you have a tendency to freeze up, you should leave very little to chance. Give your talk to the wall of your office several times—until you can predict what’s coming on the next slide without having to read it.
Second, try practicing under pressure. The best way to excel in a stressful situation is to practice in the conditions you’ll be performing under. Get a colleague or two to listen to your presentation. Go through it with friends or family to get used to people staring at you while you speak. Have them scowl as you talk, so you can acclimate to a crowd that isn’t reacting positively to what you say. And take a few questions so you can prepare to think on your feet.
Finally, in the hour leading up to your presentation, don’t practice anything—just try and relax. If you’re truly prepared for your talk already, then you need to remind yourself at this point that you know the material better than anyone. Before you get up to speak, try a simple mindfulness exercise: Count your breaths and focus on breathing slowly and deeply. Deep breathing helps calm your anxiety and gives you the chance to shine when you hit the stage.
After your presentation, pay attention to the reaction. Chances are that even if you give a terrible presentation, your audience will generally be supportive. In fact, the consequences of messing up won’t be that bad in the grand scheme of things—you won’t starve in the wilderness or get eaten by an angry predator. Enjoy the compliments you get. Over time, you’ll find that you start to fear giving presentations less. Eventually, you might even come to like them.