Knowing of my interest in all things related to presenting, my wife told me a story this week. Her teaching colleague, Sara, had the unfortunate experience of “freezing” at the beginning of a presentation. She had done the presentation before, but not to this class. She walked to the front of the room, looked at the 50 students, greeted them, and froze. It was a surprising and difficult experience for her.
Freezing in those first moments of a presentation is a physiological reaction to stress – it is the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The body releases adrenalin and cortisol into the bloodstream, which in turn causes an increased heart rate, faster breathing (which contributes to a shaky voice), sweaty palms, and dry mouth. I suspect it has happened to most presenters at one time or another.
So, how can you minimize the risk of freezing at the beginning of your presentation? Different strategies work for different presenters. Everyone agrees that being well prepared and comfortable with your content is vital. Even something as simple as “dressing for success” can be part of your preparation. Arriving early and checking out the room in which you will present can also increase your comfort level. Before the presentation, take a couple of minutes for yourself, breathe deeply, and focus. (Before the class Sara had been involved in intense discussions at a meeting, she had to leave the meeting and run to the presentation; she did not have a chance to catch her breath and focus).
The most common time to lose focus and freeze is at the beginning of the presentation. Even though I present a lot, I still feel “nerves” during the beginning moments. My trick to get past it is to memorize the first sentence of my opening (it is the only part of my presentations that I memorize). For me, saying the first sentence is like opening a door and taking the first step into a room – or in this case, a presentation. Once I am “in”, everything settles down. If you think you’d like to try this, you could write down your first sentence as a prompt to yourself, or if you are opening with a quote or a question you could have that on one of the first slides. Everyone prepares for the first moments differently; you need to find what works for you.
Preparation and focus are important in controlling pre-presentation anxiety. Even so, accept that “nerves” may hit at the beginning, but once you get started they will go away.
Thanks to Sara who agreed to for share her story in this blog. She laughs about the experience now, but believes it is important to share with other presenters. By the way, once she got past the first couple of awkward minutes, the class went fine.
Refuse to be boring