How to Reduce Stress Before a Presentation
with Constança Casquinho
Every university student will eventually experience the stress and anxiety before a major presentation, and it will not stop there. On a professional matter, it will often be necessary to present all sort of pitches, whether to sell yourself or your company services. So, what can we do to stop the nerves from getting in our way? Indeed, stress can be reduced, since it is a biological mechanism that our body activates in the face of a threat, releasing cortisol and adrenaline so that we are more alert and can fight said threat. That is what happens before a presentation: our amygdala fires up because it senses we are in danger due to our social anxiety. Actually, this biological mechanism is not adequate for what we face during a presentation. To fight and reduce this feeling we must find a way to balance these chemicals in our body.
In order to help you, Nova Skills Association brings you this guide on How to reduce stress in a presentation. This is the second of a series of articles that NSA is promoting called How-to: Guides. To help us on this task, we invited Constança Casquinho.
Constança is a former Economics student at Nova SBE with an MBA from INSEAD. Her professional path counts with names such as McKinsey, A.T. Kearney, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, among others, and for the past 10 years, she has been a freelance consultant as well as a teacher of the Strategy Consulting course at Nova SBE and ISEG, and abroad, in Warwick. All this experience combined gave Constança many opportunities to develop her stress management skills and get to some tips and tricks that help her when preparing presentations.
If we consider that presenting is being present, then we are always presenting. Even when we are simply communicating with others, we are presenting ourselves. A study by Professor Albert Mehrabian has established the Mehrabian’s Communication Theory: Verbal, Non-Verbal, Body Language which states that, when we are communicating feelings and attitudes, the effectiveness of our message is distributed according to the 7-38-55 rule:
- 7% of meaning in the words that are spoken.
- 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
- 55% of meaning is in facial expression.
As so, this guide has the main focus of preparing you for the 38+55 part, since the 7% that you communicate through the specific words you use, will have to do with the theme of your presentation.
1. Do your homework: know the content and the audience
You should only talk about things that you know about and that care for the context of the presentation. For instance, as a consultant, you have to pass through presentations the intellectual power which clients bought. That is what they are paying for and that is the only thing they care about at that moment. Constança told us she likes to use the McKinsey “So what?” approach – What is the implication of what we have found from our analysis? What is the data actually telling us? Why should our client care about what we have to say? In a way, you must start with the conclusion and leave room for the clients to ask their questions.
If we think of an educational context, when presenting a group project, for instance, stick to your part of the work; if any question arises, you are the best person to answer it rather than one of your colleagues. You can also use the “So what” but direction it to the context of your work. What was the point of your work? What was that your teacher wanted you to discover? Once you focus on that, you will not only have a sound basis for you to work on, but also guarantee that the audience will be connected to at least 7% of what is happening.
Talking about audience, the presentation is not about the speaker, it is about those who we are presenting to, it is an act of service. And to provide a good service, you need to know your audience. While presenting to a teacher or to a client, find out what they do, what is their personality and their interests. Find people that already know them so you can get an insight into their style and what type of approach they prefer (more or less casual); adjusting to that style can help you to feel more confident during the presentation since you will see that you are resonating with who is listening to you.
2. Know Yourself
Every person tends to be different and so, our bodies react differently, meaning that the strategies that work for some, might not work for you. The key element is to really know yourself. For some, knowing things by heart and be fully prepared, helps to calm the amygdala but, for others (such as Constança), this strategy causes discomfort as it might be limiting and, in cases of extreme nervousness, makes them block and forget the things and words they wanted to say. To avoid this, you should know which strategy best applies to you and work from there, so that you can learn how to calm your amygdala. Anxiety management is really important tool as well, as anxiety is a natural mechanism of our body, and the more hyper activated the brain is, the more it will get, so it is really important to try to combat that.
And how can we calm the amygdala? – “You know guys, we can’t go run a marathon if we start practicing 3 days before.”. And the same thing applies to presentations. The amygdala is a muscle, it is a part of the brain that we have to strengthen. To do so, Constança suggest you to start by practicing every day, for about 10 minutes, with apps such as “Headspace” and “Insight Timer”. Drinking lots of water and having a healthy diet, without too much processed foods, will also help you to be less hyper activated. It might not be an easy task at first, since our mind is addicted to stimulus and distractions, but it will get easier with time. And there are things that we should avoid if we want to calm our amygdala, one of the most important is to avoid taking a lot of stimulants such as coffee, sugar, energy drinks, tea etc, as they hyper activate our system. You should also try to filter what media you consume and avoid “binging rubbish mental food” so, don’t spend a lot of hours online ingesting content that might be toxic for you.
In order to calm yourself before the presentation, you can do a very important exercise, which Constança also does before her strategy consulting class, which is called “Full Breathing” or “In Depth Breathing”. It consists of breathing through your abdominal area, you can do around four or five inhalations, which calms the Vagus nerve.
If you suddenly start to lose focus, or you feel like you are starting to panic during the presentation, you can always go back to the breathing exercises, but keep in mind that if you prepare beforehand, and follow the previous advices, the chances of this happening might be reduced. Sometimes, you might even feel like you are underperforming, but keep in mind that this feeling is rather normal as we are usually very critical towards ourselves. Meditation is something that really helps Constança in these cases, although she might still have those thoughts, she is able to not pay as much attention to them. But overall, we cannot control the full results, which leads us to the final point.
3. Prepare and let go
We prepare and prepare until the time of the presentation comes, we do our best and even if we think that the outcome was not what we have wished for, we cannot control it anymore, there is no way of changing the result of the presentation so, the most important is to accept it, there is no need to overthink it. At the end, the most important thing is that you are able to just prepare and let go.
You can’t always control the result of your efforts but you can prepare yourself to do the best you can! Hopefully this guide will help you to deal with stressful situations and bring you closer to a better outcome.
We are truly thankful to Constança Casquinho for her availability for this interview which provided us with vital information on the biological elements of stress and how to handle it.
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