Overcoming presentation anxiety

  • Performing in front of a group of other students, colleagues and your lecturers is an inextricable part of the student experience here at Brookes. In principle, this is a fairly straightforward task. Yet speaking in public can unsettle or frighten some students.

    Presentation anxiety

    This information is for those students who become anxious at the thought, or the reality, of presenting their work to others – even though they are well prepared. It also provides useful transferable skills with especial reference to interview techniques.

  • Presentation anxiety is a response to fear and it manifests itself in a number of ways. Physical symptoms include – for example – blushing, shaking, stuttering, sweating, or being tongue tied.

    Mentally, anxiety comes through in feeling muddled, feelings of not making sense, and losing the thread.

    These feelings are so unpleasant that there is a temptation to avoid presentations altogether.

    A major cause is an overwhelming sense of others watching and judging, coupled with anxiety that ‘they think I'm stupid’. It is easy for these feelings to spiral into negative thoughts such as ‘I'm a total failure’. At this point, our sense of self esteem gets confused with our academic performance. Common issues are:

    • Perfectionism
      Sometimes we can pressure ourselves by having unreasonably high expectations of what we should achieve, particularly if this is the first time we have done a presentation.
    • Avoidance
      Avoidance makes things worse because we never have the opportunity to test our assumptions. Going through the experience and seeing that we can survive intact will help us build up our confidence for next time.
    • Past experience
      Particularly if the experience was a negative one, past situations can influence how we might think and feel about a similar experience even though it is in a new context. Perhaps we were teased for blushing or stuttering at school, or remember times when our ideas were put down or rejected by the family or in public. Being in a situation where others are watching, judging or criticising can trigger feelings of anxiety or rejection associated with those past experiences. As a result we may be over critical of our performance, focusing on everything that went wrong, until we feel we are ‘no good at it’. This sets up a vicious spiral: next time our anxiety levels are even higher and we are less likely to do well.
    • Lack of confidence
      Lack of self confidence can affect thinking, feelings, behaviour and body language. Labelling oneself unconfident means failing to appreciate the things we do do well. Confidence comes from doing things and having a go, learning from our mistakes.

    Take control 

    The key to success is to think positively; take control of your stress and anxiety by learning effective techniques to combat it. 

    Relaxing bodily tension in order to reduce the physical sensations of stress is a good place to start. If your body is free of tension your mind tends to be relaxed. This helps you concentrate and perform better, take decisions and solve problems. When you are relaxed, you can view each task as a positive challenge, and use stress as a stimulus to help you to carry it out. You could try some relaxation exercises or the breathing exercise below.

    Breathing exercise

    Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. As you breathe in through your nose allow your stomach to swell. This means that you are using the diaphragm to breathe in and allowing air right down into your lungs. Try to keep the movement in your upper chest to a minimum and keep the movement gentle. Slowly and evenly breathe out through your nose. Repeat and get a rhythm going. You are aiming to take 8-12 breaths a minute: breathing in and breathing out again counts as one breath. Practise until it becomes a habit and switch to regular breathing when you next become anxious.

    Problem solving 

    Find a new way to look at the problem. There is always more than one way of seeing things, which means that we may be able to act more effectively by looking at the problem differently. The key is to recognize our thoughts and the way that they have affected our mood and confidence. Think about:

    • What went through my mind at the time?
    • What is it about this that matters to me now?
    • What does this situation mean to me now?
    • What does it mean about me now?

    Finding a new view point will give you more options and keep your thoughts in perspective. For example:

    • How would I think if I felt calmer? Or differently?
    • What evidence is there that I'm ... useless, hopeless, etc?
    • What is the worst that could happen?
    • What can I do if it happens?
    • Could I be making a mistake in how I see myself?

    The run up...

    Pigeon hole other anxieties

    This involves consciously organizing your mind to temporarily put on one side all the other issues that concern you. Tell yourself that you will address these issues in due course, but for now you want to focus on the task ahead and give yourself time to prepare.

    Practice

    • The more you do the more you'll feel like doing and the better you are likely to be.
    • Pretend! Act as if you are not feeling self conscious. 
    • Have all your materials well organised before you start: pens, props, all your visual aids etc.
    • Do seek further advice on the practicalities associated with presentation skills from the Careers Centre.

    Try the following suggestions:

    • Refer back to your breathing exercises and concentrate on using them to defuse your anxieties and reduce the chances of shaking or sweating.
    • Think positively, challenging those negative thoughts like ‘I'm stupid’, ‘I can't do this’. Replace them consciously with ‘I can do this’. Remind yourself that what feels like an enormous problem to you probably isn't to those watching.
    • A useful technique that can help stop worrying thoughts crowding in is to visualise a ‘stop sign’ or draw a red dot on your work. As soon as you become conscious of your worrying thoughts, concentrate on your "stop" message. This helps keep you focused.
    • Focus on the content of your talk. As your turn approaches take a deep breath letting go of as much tension as is possible. When it's your turn to take centre stage use the adrenaline rush to feel alert and focused.
    • If you feel yourself blushing, ignore it and reassure yourself that it will die down once you've got going ! Say to yourself that you are not likely to be marked down for turning pink.
    • Slow your speech down, it helps you feel in control.
    • This web page was not designed to address how best to present your information. However, here are 3 basic principles: 
      (i) keep it short and simple, don't be too ambitious, 
      (ii) use examples to illustrate your points and 
      (iii) have a card with your key points written on it, to which you can refer.

    Using drugs of any sort (alcohol, stimulants, even too much caffeine) to ‘get through’ can adversely affect performance leaving you even less able to perform well. Facing your fear now will provide you with a skill for life.

    • Be encouraging, not disparaging, to yourself. Don't beat yourself up metaphorically for every mistake you spotted. Maybe the first step is just to survive and be able to stand up in front of the class.
    • Be kind to yourself and reward your efforts, focusing on your achievement.
    • If you make a mistake, use it to help in the future. Don't let it drag you down.
    • Think realistically about what you could have done differently and plan how to improve things next time. Perhaps ask one or two others for constructive feedback.

    Books

    • Manage your Mind  Butler G & Hope T (1996) Oxford University Press
    • Overcoming Anxiety  Kennerley H (1997) Robinson
    • Conquer your Stress  Cooper C & Palmer S (2000) Institute of Personnel and Development 
    • Books from the Counselling Service Bibliotherapy Scheme.

    Your doctor

    Brookes students can see a doctor at the Medical Centre on the Headington Campus. 

    If you are not registered with the Medical Centre, you should make an appointment with your own doctor.

    Careers

    Careers may be able to give advice on how to do good presentations. 

    Academic support staff

    Your personal Academic Adviser, Module Leaders or Student Support Co-ordinator may be able to help with concerns about presentations.