Thinking about how you express your emotions has an unfortunate side-effect — focusing on how you look and sound can make you even more self-conscious and nervous. Trying to consciously control your body, as a new presenter, often leads to movements which are unnatural. Also, becoming preoccupied with body language techniques can mislead you into imagining the audience can read your mind. They really can’t.
The best advice, at this early stage, is to follow a two-step treatment plan — relax sufficiently so that your emotions can emerge naturally; and then begin to amplify those emotions.
The unfortunate combined effect of the following factors is to turn many novices into zombie presenters:
- the “fight or flight” stress response — standing alone, in front of other people and talking to them is not a normal activity. It’s natural to be afraid and vulnerable. This high level of stress causes our bodies to tense, our perception to narrow and our expressivity to shut down.
- self-consciousness — our painful preoccupation with ourselves when we’re in the limelight makes us wary about showing our true emotions. We feel clumsy. We think we’re being judged for every tiny thing.
- the illusion of transparency — human beings are poor judges of how visible their feelings are to others. Even though we accept intellectually that others cannot see our emotions directly, we act as if they can read our minds. We know the emotions we felt and intended to convey, but we forget these are not as obvious to those around us.
- the flattening effect — your emotions dissipate with distance. Most of our spoken communication occurs in close conversations with people who know us well — they can detect more subtle changes in our intonation and facial expressions. This upbringing, however, blinds us to how much our emotions get flattened out by distance when we present to an audience of strangers.
- cultural norms — as we grow up, we learn how adults are “supposed to behave”. We inhibit the range and intensity of the emotions we expressed as children. Sadly, years of peer pressure and socialisation take their toll.
I’ve outlined these issues to explain why zombification is so widespread in novice educators, rather than to dishearten you. These responses are not your fault. They are each recognised elements of human psychology. Experienced presenters are subject to the same factors, but they have learnt how to compensate for them when expressing their emotions onstage. The following process suggests an approach to help less experienced zombie presenters.
3.2.1 Stage 1 — relax and feel
We’ve all been there. Racing heart. Sweaty palms. Dry mouth. Flushed face. Trembling hands. Shaky voice. Rhythmic pacing. Protective body hugging. These responses are normal for novice speakers. We haven’t evolved to feel safe in such a vulnerable position. Our minds spin with anxieties. Will I mess up? Will they discover I don’t know everything? Will I remember what to say? Will they reject me? However, the most important way to let your voice and body convey your emotions is to relax. Muscular tension destroys your ability to communicate physically.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done when everyone is looking at you, exposed and alone, onstage. But implementing the mindsets, actions and techniques below can help to quell the worst effects of nervousness.
“The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.”
George Jessel (comedian)
It’s in your head
These are some suggestions about how adopting the correct mindset towards any presentation nerves you may have can calm them at the outset:
- reframe your distressing nerves as necessary excitement — physiologically, there is little difference between the chemicals behind moderate fear and excitement. So, think of your presentation stress as the performance-enhancing arousal you need to give an alert and energetic presentation. It means that you care about your presentation and your audience. This chemical boost is your friend rather than your enemy. It’s only when this stress becomes too high that these same chemicals can turn you into a zombie presenter.
- put it in perspective — a presentation is never as important to the rest of your life as it seems at the time. Keep reassuring yourself of this truth.
- you are not an open book — they cannot hear your heartbeat or feel your skin sweat. So, don’t over-react to your fear. Don’t, for example, start by apologising for being nervous.
- the audience is on your side — as an informal educator, it is in their interest that you give an engaging and confident performance. They want you to succeed. You will be much more critical of your performance than any of your audience.
- it gets easier after the start — you will feel worse waiting to speak and at the start of the presentation than you will in the rest of the delivery. Learn to accept, and expect, this pattern.
Relax before you start
Consider these techniques to settle yourself in advance of the presentation:
- preparation is the enemy of nervousness — the uncomfortable truth is that we don’t put enough effort into the activities that would most help to reduce presentation anxiety — thorough practice and realistic rehearsal. This may be blindingly self-evident, but it cannot be stressed enough. The more familiar you are with your content and equipment, the less nervous you will be.
“Practice is nature’s own beta blocker.”
Rob Yeung (psychologist)
- do a reconnaissance to limit your unknowns — familiarise yourself with the venue, the staging and the audio-visual controls as much as possible before the group enters. Walk around the space. Psychologically own the room.
- control your breathing — if you can concentrate on slowing and deepening your breathing pattern, almost magically, the rest of your body will calm down in unison.
- visualise yourself performing each action of a routine — mentally rehearsing a routine, step by step, can help to fight some of the uncertainties feeding your anxiety. Try to concentrate on the effective execution of these actions rather than imagining what the outcome of a successful presentation feels like. The danger with visualising the outcome is that your mind can sometimes become complacent if it thinks it has already achieved its goal.
- don’t fixate on everything that could go wrong — think positively about your ability to cope when something unexpected happens onstage (2.5). Planning recovery strategies for common problems is reassuring and wise, but catastrophising by exaggerating every imaginable disaster will help no-one. Shut down this kind of damaging self-talk as soon as it starts.
- warm-up physically — simple voice and body exercises can burn up your excess nervous energy. In practice, though, these need to be discrete and quick in most situations in which informal educators work, e.g. tensing and then relaxing each major group of muscles, in turn, moving from your toes up to your eyebrows.
- connect with individuals before you start presenting — chat to a few spectators before the presentation so you can begin to form relationships and build up your trust bank. Some of these people will become your emotional beacons and volunteers. This strategy also helps to humanise the audience for you when you are on stage.
Relax during the presentation
Applying the above advice can help you deal with most of your nerves before you open your mouth. But here are some additional techniques to try as you are presenting:
- focus on being present — you cannot feel overly self-conscious and be present at the same time. The first peers inward and the second looks outward. Try to forget how you feel and shift your focus onto the presentation moment and the individuals sitting in front of you.
- land your opening — work hard to craft and deliver a strong opening which produces a visible response. When you see this first big reaction, you will sense your body start to relax.
- make strong eye contact with spectators — this technique can seem counterintuitive because, at the start, it can make you more self-conscious. Holding eye contact with a person is an intimate act, but if you persevere, you will soon feel reassured when you sense how engaged they really are.
- fake it, until you make it — one sneaky way of becoming more confident is to physically act as if you are already confident. Your body will then convince your mind you are as in control as you are behaving.
- don’t obsess over your mistakes — lost in your heightened reality, all your problems become magnified. Treat some mistakes as offers to be exploited (2.5).
You will get used to the spotlight
Although it may not feel like it at the start of your presenting career, with experience, your nerves will subside naturally as you become habituated to the stress of being in the spotlight. It’s hard to be excessively nervous about any activity which you do every working day. You will also get better at applying the relaxation strategies above. So much so, in fact, you might not be aware you are even using them.
Experienced informal educators, however, still get nervous when any important factor changes around their role, e.g. an audience that is different to their normal groups; delivering a new, untested presentation; or knowing friends or family are present.
Allow yourself to feel
Once you’ve moved into a more relaxed state, your emotions will emerge naturally. The calmer you are, the more convincingly your voice and body will express your emotions without you even being conscious of it. Don’t obsess about what your hands should be doing. Don’t try to make your voice sound as if you are fascinated. After all, how often do you think of your body language when you’re having an animated conversation with a friend or when you’re in the middle of a raging row with your partner?
There are, of course, exceptions to this advice about emoting your feelings without a filter, which we’ll explore later in this tool. For instance, if you’re not inherently interested in a topic; when you’ve done a routine hundreds of times before and you must act surprised; or when you find yourself frustrated by how a child is misbehaving.
3.2.2 Stage 2 — amplify
After you’ve developed ways of controlling your nerves, you can progress to clarifying your emotions onstage more intentionally.
Be sickeningly enthusiastic
When I started presenting science shows, a trainer who was a professional actor gave us some extreme advice for beginners — “If you feel you are being sickeningly enthusiastic, you’re pitching it at about the right level.” Initially, if you don’t feel like a cartoon character hamming it up, you’re not amplifying your emotions enough. The subtleties of emotion we normally employ in conversations will get lost on the stage. Also, remember, when you’re presenting, everything you do always looks better to the audience than it feels to you.
Again, because the curse of the zombie presenter is so insidious, you will rarely see this weakness in your own delivery. Reading these warnings in a book isn’t enough to convince you how much you’re under its spell. It’s only when you watch yourself on video you realise how relatively inexpressive you are. And even then, this is not quite how the audience saw you, because you know what you felt as you’re watching — they didn’t. Being able to see ourselves truly as others see us is one of the hardest things for anyone to do.
I should stress that this advice about feeling as if you are being “sickeningly enthusiastic” only applies to someone at the start of their career. Once you’ve been presenting for a while, you project your emotions without thinking and it begins to feel much more normal.
“Few people speak passionately. They think they’re being passionate, but to the audience they come off as only mildly engaging.”
Scott Berkun (professional speaker)
Adjust for you and your audience
Now that I’ve given the above advice in its most robust form, allow me to qualify it. In practice, the extent to which you need to exaggerate your emotions in any given presentation, depends on several factors:
- how animated you are naturally — some people are more dispositionally expressive than others, but every presenter can learn to communicate their feelings more clearly with their voice and body.
- your presentation character and style — as ever, the way you implement any hook must always be consistent with your stage persona. Some educators convey their passion through quiet intensity rather than loud animation. But their learners still feel their energy.
- the energy level of the room — opening with too much enthusiasm for the initial state of the crowd, can turn them off you, e.g. some reluctant teenage groups; shy audiences of children under five. It is better to bring up the energy of these groups gradually, in steps, as you win their trust. But you still need to lead their response with your level of enthusiasm.
- the size of the audience — the flattening effect demands that the further away your learners are, the more you need to magnify your expressions and body language.
- the age of the group — children and young people inhabit a much more vibrant universe than adults. They constantly seek new sensations. The younger the learners, the more expressive you can afford to become without being seen to be patronising them.
- the nature of your content — when discussing ideas that your audience may find controversial or sensitive, you may need to adjust your enthusiasm to respect the topic and to help you connect with them.
- their cultural expectations — people vary across the world in how energetic they expect their presenters to be.
But don’t allow any of these qualifications to let you escape the initial discomfort you should feel as you learn how to amplify your emotions. For example, even those educators with a quieter or more laid-back presentation style still need to exaggerate the emotions underlying their intensity onstage.
You’re unlikely to overdo it
Part of our reluctance to amplify our emotions as educators stems from not wanting to come across as one of two stereotypes — a manic children’s entertainer or an evangelical motivational speaker. I understand these fears.
But I need you to trust me on this point. Years of training educators has demonstrated to me that the risk of inexperienced presenters overdoing the amplification of their emotions is less than the danger of them coming across as a zombie. Surprisingly, this remains true even when I challenge them, in training exercises, to show me what they think is a comical level of presentation animation. The few educators who manage to stretch their emotional range too far in these games are usually highly extroverted and expressive by nature or have acting experience (I’ll discuss the dangers of being over-enthusiastic in 3.8).
The reason for this is simply that the psychological factors I identified at the start of this section are so strong for new presenters, they tend to suppress how you express your emotions much more than you think. Provided your enthusiasm comes from your genuine interest in the subject and your commitment to helping your learners, it is hard to be too expressive. Let yourself go.
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