Everyone gets nervous when they present, even professional speakers. Being nervous reminds you that what you are doing is important. Remember, a presentation is (or should be) an important event – a one-hour presentation to 20 colleagues isn’t taking up one hour of time, its consuming 20 hours of your organisation’s productivity.

The most important thing you can do to reduce and manage nervousness when presenting is to be clear about why you are making this presentation. As I have argued in previous articles, I think the best motivation to make a presentation is to persuade your audience that you have a solution to a problem they have. Approaching your presentation with this in mind will change many aspects of your talk, including how you prepare, how you design your PowerPoint, your body language and the content you use. It will also have an impact on how nervous you will feel.

The biggest problem I encounter with presentations is that the presenter believes that the objective is to transmit information from their head into the heads of the audience. There are various problems with this objective. First, it places you and your expertise at the centre of the presentation, and naturally this makes you nervous (you think it’s all about yourself). Also, this makes it very difficult to select what you will say in the short period of time you have to speak, as the constraint you are placing on your talk is merely how much can you say in the limited time you have been given. Conversely, framing the objective as a problem that your audience has (and not you) provides more defined constraints on what you should say; instead of trying to give an overview of your vast expert knowledge, you choose what to say based on what they need to know in order to overcome their problem.

Also, it is very difficult (unless you are a megalomaniac!) to speak enthusiastically about yourself. On the other hand, we can get very enthusiastic speaking about others or about a problem that we all share. So, the most important thing you can do to be less nervous is to be clear in your mind that you are making this presentation to fix a problem that the audience has.

The next most important thing you can do is rehearse. If you have not rehearsed your finished presentation, then of course you’re going to feel very nervous and there is nothing that anyone could do to help. Preparation is key. But what is the best way to prepare?

Preparing alone and out loud

First, I’m going to speak about preparing alone. I’ve seen many people sitting in front of the computer, moving through their slides, their lips moving as they quietly rehearse their talk. However, remember that both your body and your mind are involved in speaking. So, when you’re rehearsing, stand up and speak out loud. Use a slide changer and change slides on your computer screen just as you will in your presentation. Even better is to do a final rehearsal in the room where you’re going to give the presentation. Actors do most of their rehearsals in a dedicated rehearsal room, but they always do a couple of rehearsals (called “dress rehearsals”) in costume and in the theatre they will be performing. Also, when rehearsing, speak out loud at the volume you expect to speak the day of your talk.

Get over the fear of recording yourself on camera

Use the webcam on your computer or tablet or mobile phone to record yourself giving the talk. Recording yourself on camera is the best way to improve as a presenter, and yet few people do it as they are embarrassed about seeing themselves on video. Get over the embarrassment, this video is just for you and nobody need ever see it.

The first time you watched the recording turn the sound down and just watch yourself speaking. Look at your body language. Do you recognise this person in the video as yourself? Or do you seem like somebody else? Do you look relaxed, happy, enthusiastic? The person in the silent video should move and seem like you. If not, reflect on your levels of enthusiasm, how present you are in the room, and your connection with your body. If you are interested in learning more about body language one of the easiest things you can do is to watch television with the sound turned all the way down. Just watch how people move and interact with each other.

Another great advantage of videoing yourself is that if you have to travel to give your presentation it’s easy to watch this video with earphones on while you’re on the plane or train, and this way remind yourself of the structure and key points of your presentation. I use this method myself whenever I have to travel, and I find it much more efficient and effective then going over my PowerPoint slides and my presenter notes. It is also very useful for professional speakers like myself who repeat talks during the year, as watching the videos refreshes my mind and prevents me from mixing up sections from different talks.

There is no excuse not to video yourself, there are cameras and phones and tablets and on our computers. If it makes you nervous to record yourself remember that the video was only for you, you don’t have to show to anybody. However, it is very interesting to show the video without any sound to a friend or family member and to get their feedback. These people know you very well and will see things in your body language that you might miss yourself.

Practicing eye contact with teddy bears

Some people believe that rehearsing in front of the mirror can be beneficial. Try it and you will probably see how strange it feels and looks. It feels very strange to make eye contact with oneself! So, instead of using a mirror, use teddy bears. Find some cuddly toys (buy some if you have to!) and line them up in front of you. Deliver your talk to your captive audience making, sure to make eye contact. This is a good exercise for people that find it difficult to make eye contact with their audience (a very common problem). Some of the more macho men that come to my workshops tell me that they don’t have any teddy bears, so I tell them to go to the countryside and find a field full of cows. If you stand in front of a field of cows, they will all come towards you and line up in front of you. When they are ready and attentive, give them your presentation, practising eye contact with your bovine audience!

Rehearsing with friends is different than with colleagues

If it’s an important presentation, it’s not enough to practice alone; you won’t be able to recreate that nervous feeling without having a real audience. We can ask our friends and/or we can ask our work colleagues to watch our presentation. When rehearsing with friends and family, the disadvantage is that they probably don’t know or fully understand the content of our talk. Therefore, with them it is important to get feedback about the structure of the talk ( e.g. they should be able to tell you that there were three main sections), any key messages they remember (even if they didn’t understand them), what action you are asking the audience to take, and about your voice and body language.

With work colleagues, the most important thing to practice is the question and answer session because they understand the content. Tell them not to go easy on you and to ask the most difficult questions that can think of. Remember, the question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation is the most important part of the presentation and you should prepare for it accordingly. I’ve explained more at length about the question-and-answer session here.