Your palms are sweating, you have forgotten what you were supposed to be saying and you are drenched in a hot anxiety that everything is about to go pear-shaped.
Most of us have known this feeling at one point or another – it’s the dreaded speech or presentation, a now-ubiquitous feature of office and university life.
The US National Institute of Mental Health 2013 survey found 74 per cent of people have some degree of speech anxiety.
And some people, it would seem, are more disposed to choking under pressure.
In a study published in the journal Neuron, researchers measured brain activity after participants had been offered a cash reward to hit a target with a virtual object.
A functional MRI scan showed offering a reward before each trial activated a part of the brain involved in incentives. This activity grew with the reward, but while larger rewards motivated participants to play, it decreased their performance by making them worry about losing their future winnings. Researchers found people who were more afraid of losing – or loss-averse – were more likely to choke at lower dollar amounts than others.
Senior Regional Director at Hays Recruitment, Peter Noblet, says the workplace presentation still casts a pall of fear over many of his staff.
“It’s that old adage that people fear public speaking more than they fear death,” he says.
But chances are if you work in a client-facing role, or aspire to senior management, you are going to have to get up in public and deliver a speech.
Here is how to make sure you give a good one.
Training Consultant and Facilitator at the Australian Institute of Management, Chemene Sinson, says people need to change their perspective in order to feel less anxious about presenting.
“You need to shift the focus away from yourself and look at how to give the audience what they need,” Ms Sinson says.
“It’s not about us, we shouldn’t be thinking we’re on show. And even if you think you are on show, you have to realise we are constantly on show anyway throughout our day so this is something we are actually very good at.
“And in terms of being concerned about something going wrong, we need to realise that no one will lose a limb here, no one is going to die.”
When Ms Sinson reflects on moments when her presentations haven’t gone quite as she would have hoped it was because she failed to warm up.
“Singers don’t take to the stage without warming up their vocal chords, so you need to make sure you warm up before a speech somehow,” Ms Sinson says.
“When I get nervous the top half of my diaphragm works, but the bottom doesn’t, so I will say the speech before I go on so by the time I get to the microphone I am already in the zone, I am warmed up.
“It will be different for everyone, and will depend on where you are giving the speech as to what kind of preparation you do, but as long as you find that thing that helps you warm up, it will make a difference.
“For some it’s meditating.”
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Nerves are a healthy response to getting up in front of a group of people, and according to Mr Noblet, you need to take that fear and nervous energy and harness it correctly.
“It’s human nature to be afraid, but you need to turn that fear into positive thoughts, channel the nerves,” he says.
“People tend to think of all that can go wrong before they give a speech, but you need to think about all the things that could go right.”
You will be better able to focus on the positives if you are well prepared, Mr Noblet adds.
“Make sure you understand the topic and your speech really well, as people get the most nervous when they lack confidence in what they are saying,” Mr Noblet says.
“Go as far as checking out the room you will be giving the talk in in advance because that takes away the fear of the unknown.”
Mind your body language
Mr Noblet says the best advice he has ever been given is to change his body language to affect a positive stance.
“In the moments before giving a speech, when you are feeling nervous, instead of slouching in the chair, adopt a confident posture,” Mr Noblet says.
“It really does have a positive impact on how you feel.”
And if you find yourself feeling frazzled, take a moment, pause and collect yourself.
“People always comment on how Steve Jobs presented and one of the things he would do was pause to think over a question,” Mr Noblet says.
“If you really are unsure of an answer, or you’re feeling very nervous, take a moment to pause and that will really help.
“Deep breaths are always a great way of slowing the heart rate down, too.”