The Presentation Anxiety Solution — 8 Pre-mortem steps

Presentation anxiety is one of the most commonly resported sources of stress in the workplace today. The symptoms of presentation anxiety can be alarming. So much so, that some people feel anxious for weeks or months before a presentation. Many will go out of their way to avoid presenting wherever possible.

I’ve written several articles aimed at helping to quell presentation anxiety. Here are just a few of them:

21 MINDFUL tools for managing presentation nerves

The Presenters Inner Critic — 3 steps to taming it

20 helpful tips to calm your public speaking nerves

7 Tips to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

Our website is filled with helfpul ideas to build confidence and stamp out presentation anxiety.

We also run a highly effective 2 day Public Speaking Anxiety Course.

Another perspective

For now, I’d like to explore presentation anxiety from another helpful perspective.

When a presentation doesn’t go quite to plan, the Mindful Presenter carries out a full post mortem. In other words, they don’t just put it down to experience. Instead they work out exactly what went wrong and why.

The experienced Mindful Presenter doesn’t leave this to chance; they don’t wait for the post mortem.

Instead, they carry out a pre-mortem long before they stand to speak. A pre-mortem begins at the moment we are called on to present. Not after the event.

The pre-mortem works on the basis that the presentation has already failed. We find out what went wrong before we even sit down to craft it.

That in itself sounds more anxiety provoking than just hoping it will go well. It is however, a key part of the solution.

The pre-mortem allows us to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong. It’s a means of substantially managing our level of anxiety through anticipating and preparing for everything that could happen.

It works under the premise that you prepare for the worst and expect the best.

The Pre-mortem

It starts with a few very important questions:

What’s so important that I can’t just send these people an email?

Who are they really?

How much do they know?

What do they need?

Why should they care about what I have to say?

What difference will what I have to say make to their personal or professional lives?

What’s my message?

You can be certain that if you can’t answer each of these questions with absolute clarity your presentation will fail. You will be asking them during the post-mortem.

Don’t wait to ask yourself, “What happened?”

A pre-mortem enables you to anticipate all of the issues that can cause you to be so anxious.

So what did happen?

Here are some of the common mistakes presenters make that we can learn from. Taking the time to do so is key to reducing presentation anxiety.

  1. They weren’t clear on their message

Every presenter believes they have a clear and compelling message to share. Despite their belief, many audiences have to work really hard to understand exactly what that message is.

We live in a world of social media. The whole world is ‘tweeting’. Communication through 280 characters presents a challenge. We have to think long and hard about the point we are trying to make. That’s where the pre-mortem begins.

Am I clear on my message.

Can I write it clearly and simply on a post-it note? If my audience were to ‘tweet’ it, what would they write?

Is your messages concise, compelling and transparent?

  1. They didn’t have a strategy

Many professionals focus obessively on content when crafting a presentation. Content is of course critically important.

When our content is focused on showing our audience how clever we are and how much we know, that’s a problem

If we don’t have a clear strategy it’s inevitable that we will feel unduly anxious. We are making your presentation about us rather than your audience. Once the mindful presenter is clear on their message they then turn their attention to its purpose.

Our purpose revolves around two crucial elements:

– What do we want our audience to do with our message?

– What do we want our audience to feel about our message?

Having a clear message is a good start. If you are not clear on what you want your audience to feel about it, you will be anxious.

  1. They opened their laptop first

When crafting a presentation, the last thing you should open is your laptop. Doing so immediately stifles free thinking and creativity. Inevitably, it results in us producing a presentation that everyone has seen before.

Many presenters will turn to a template they’ve used many times before and repolulate it. That’s a recipe for mediocrity. Whilst it’s the easy path, it’s ultimately another source of anxiety. You know that you will look and sound the same as everyone else.

Take a moment to think about your message and purpose. Imagine how both could be presented in a way that stands out from the crowd. My personal favourite is using post it notes as a starting point. Brainstorm and support everything you can think of to serve your purpose and animate your message.

  1. They made it about themselves.

No one cares:

– Who you are

– How many offices you have

– How many insurance policies you sell.

– What your job title is

– How many letters you have after your name

What most people do care about is:

– Do you respect and value their time

– Can you share something relevant they don’t already know

– Do you really care

– How you can make their lives better, easier, happier or positively different

Don’t tell them how nervous you are or how little time you have had to prepare. Tell them only what matters to them.

  1. They didn’t practice effectively

Many professionals believe that practicing their presentation means that they simply have to read it to themselves. Practicing takes time, mindfulness and effort. The mindful presenter will practice their presentation in 3 ways:

– They internalise their message. That doesn’t mean that they memorise everything.It means that if they left their notes on the train, they could still speak.

– They practice the way they share and express their message verbally. That includes energy, volume, pitch, pace, intonation, contrast and pauses.

– They practice their non-verbal expression. In other words, how do they stand, look, make eye contact, move and even smile.

  1. They didn’t ask ‘So what?’

Everything we share should be preceded by asking ourselves the all-important question, ‘So what?’

Imagine your audience stopping you at any point, asking, ‘So what, why should I care?’

Everything we plan to share must be done with that question in mind.

If you don’t have a good answer to all of these questions you should be nervous.

  1. They didn’t know the answer

As presenters we need to be able to answer questions we don’t know the answer to, whilst retaining our credibility.

The pre-mortem solution is anticipation.

That means anticipating in advance every conceivable question you may be asked. It means finding the appropriate knowledge, authority or expertise to help you to identify those ‘killer’ questions.

It also means have the courage and grace to simply accept and say you don’t know the answer on occasion.

  1. They didn’t take care of themselves

You’ve spent an inordinate amount of time crafting, preparing and practicing your presentation. Now it’s time to look after number 1.

Before you stand to speak you owe it to yourself to take good care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.

– Exercise

– Breathe

– Meditate

– Visualise

Your job is to do whatever it takes for you personally to look after yourself and put yourself in the peak position required to enable you to speak with impact.

The following TED Talk by Daneil Levitin explains the concept of pre-mortem thinking further.

If you need help with presentation anxiety:

– Book yourself onto a powerful public speaking course.

– Invest in some really good one to one public speaking coaching.

– Get yourself some excellent presentation training

If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and public speaking coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.

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Maurice DeCastro

Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.