Why we fear presentations and how to overcome it

“We need you to do a presentation…”

A phrase that instills fear in many people…But why is this? Why are so many people afraid of standing up on stage and presenting?

Fear of Social Harm

I believe the main psychological barrier when giving a presentation is our fear of social harm. As humans, we are social beings, so we worry about the potential repercussions that might occur to us a result of giving the presentation. Will we be accepted by the group or rejected by them?

Millions of years ago we used to live around camp fires, and if we got excluded from that group, we would be on our own, and we would die. That same fear is still in us. We have a biological need to be accepted.

So most of us don’t want to put ourselves out there. We would much rather stay in the shadows and stick to the status quo, rather than risk losing whatever social status we currently have.

This leads to what I call the “Inhibition Effect”.

The Inhibition Effect

Scientifically inhibition is defined as:

“a restraining, arresting, or checking of the action or an organ or cell” and “the reduction of a reflex or other activity as the result of an antagonistic stimulant,” and “a state created at synapses making them less excitable by other sources of stimulation.”

I prefer to think of it like the fuse you get in an electrical device. The purpose of a fuse is to break the circuit in the event of excessive current, and stop the device from blowing up! 

This fuse like system is already present throughout our bodies. For example when we are working on our flexibility, our pain receptors tell us when we are pushing too far, and they tell us to stop. It’s pretty handy because it stops us from from damaging ourselves permanently. (Just like trying to pull an elastic band, if you pull it too much it will snap and break!)

This happens in our brains too. Consciously or unconsciously, we weigh up the possibility of pain (social) against the importance of the performance. 

Then if we feel it will cause more harm than good, your inhibitory fuse kicks in, breaks the circuit, and stops you from putting further pressure on your system (you try to do anything in your power to get out of doing the presentation)

The problem is a lot of our fuses are overcautious. They blow at a time when there is no real or potential threat looming.

So how do we solve this?

Increase the size of our fuse

A small inhibitory fuse means that the slightest pressure will cause it to blow out and break the circuit. So we need to increase it, and this takes time. Unfortunately there is no way of getting around it. Warren Buffett once said:

“You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

He could not be more right. Anyone who has taken up a sport or an instrument, knows that a lot of practice is needed to get to the standard you want.

So how do we do it?

Progressive overload. A common phrase used by personal trainers, it is “the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during practice.” Trainers use it to improve the athletic abilities of their clients, and the same technique can be used to increase the capabilities of our fuses.

Caution: Too much too quickly, and the system overloads and breaks (you push people too far and then don’t want to do it anymore). Not enough and no adaption takes place (if you don’t push yourself, you won’t grow)

I am reminded of “The Twits” by Roald Dahl. There is a chapter called “The Shrinks”. In it Mr. Twit glues pieces of wood no thicker than a penny onto Mrs. Twit’s cane each night, as well as onto the legs of her chair, making Mrs. Twit believe that she is slowly shrinking.

It is a very subtle change, and the difference each day isn’t that noticeable, but over a long period of time a much greater increase is noticed. 

This is what needs to happen to increase your fuse size. It may not seem like much, but if you reflect back on it after a period of time, you will notice a substantial difference.

So what do we “progressive overload” to increase this fuse? 

Well for presentations there are numerous areas that you could work on (voice, body, delivery, gestures, and so on) but the first one you should focus on is your comfort zone. Your ability to stand in front of a group and present.

So how do we increase our comfort zone? We need to present at each level until we are comfortable and can do it with ease. When we have achieved comfort at that level, we then move onto the next one, and then the next one, and the next one, and so on.

The increases are small but still need to push you (if they aren’t pushing you, up the ante, if it is too much, bring it back a bit)

For each progression below start off with a 1 word presentation, then 1 sentence, 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, then 15 minutes (feel free to skip any of the above if they become too easy!)

  1. Present to yourself.

  2. Present to yourself in front of the mirror.

  3. Present to yourself in front of a camera.

  4. Present to a close friend or partner.

  5. Present to a colleague.

  6. Add an additional person to either of the above.

  7. Keep increasing the number of people you present to (1 or 2 at time)

  8. Try adding someone who has a higher status than you (maybe your line manager)

  9. Keep increasing the number of people and status of those in the audience.

Compare this process to training for a marathon. If you want to run a marathon you wouldn’t start out running 26 miles straight away would you? You would start off low and build yourself up to it.

Now every person is different. Some people find presenting to friends or a loved one harder than a colleague and vice versa. Use the list above and put it in the order that will push you the furthest. Add other groupings too! It’s your journey! You are the only one who knows what will push you.

It is going to take time too (and depending on the person can vary significantly) but if you continue moving forward, I promise looking back on it all you will notice a great improvement from where you started.

Experiences rewire your brain, strengthening old neural connections, and building new ones. As a result your fuse will become more resilient to the obstacles that come its way. It will increase your capacity to do more and help you to push past physiological and psychological barriers into new unknown territories.

Top Tips

The more you can experience the skill of presenting, the better you will be.

  1. Find opportunities to present to other people: Weddings, talks at schools, lunchtime learnings, breakfast clubs, anything. Get up there and experience it.

  2. Expand your comfort zones: Use the system above to slowly expand your comfort zone.Toastmasters: - There are loads of these all over the country (your workplace might even run one!). An excellent place to practice your presentation skills. If there isn’t one near you, start one up!

  3. Get a coach: It is one of the best ways to improve your presentation skills. But you need to find the right one for you. Don’t book on a 10 week course. You might hate the coach during the first session, and then won’t get the best out of the remaining 9 weeks (plus you would have already paid!). All coaches should offer one-off sessions. If you enjoy their style and you click, then go ahead and book a block of courses. Some questions to ask yourself: Would you prefer a male or female coach? Local to you, or would you rather go further afield? Would you like to be coached at your office or somewhere else?

  4. Find a course: There are hundreds of presentation courses to choose from, and it can be really hard to find what is the best one. A good way to go is to find out how much of the session is practical. If it’s more learning based, just read a book! You will probably get the same amount of it.If you want to acquire a the skill, you must practice it in context. Learning enhances practice, but it doesn’t replace it. If performance matters, learning alone is never enough. More expensive doesn’t always mean best. Look at who they have worked with before, what their background is, client testimonials, and so on.

  5. Commit: Whatever route you choose. Commit. It is going to take time, and it is going to be hard at times, but if you can push through those struggles, it will be worth it!

Finally if you are feeling nervous before your presentation, have a quick look at "10 ways to overcome nerves before your next presentation"

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