How to Prep for a Presentation When You Have Severe Anxiety

If just the thought of giving a speech sends you into a panic attack, this was written for you.
November 23, 2017
7 mins read

We all know that getting anxiety before a big presentation can make presenting difficult. For those with pre-existing conditions for anxiety, such as social anxiety, agoraphobia and panic disorder, presenting can be more difficult than for those without.

While many of the tips most students use to deal with presentations fail to help those with anxiety, here are some practical steps to take that I use, in order to deal with my anxiety, when presenting. No amount of gimmickry in the world will leave you feeling serene as you address your classmates, but these six tips can definitely help ease your nerves.

1. Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

All students planning a presentation are told to practice, but those with anxiety will need to practice even more; at the same time, remember that quantity is not the only factor in intelligent practicing, as it is possible to over-prepare. When you are running through your presentation, establish some key points you want to make sure you’re getting correctly.

The first is usually your time limit; tailor what you say and how quickly you say it in order to meet that mark. Once you’ve figured out exactly what you can adequately cover in your time limit, reduce your talking points into more easily memorable bullet points, such as introduction, main point one, supporting evidence, main point two, supporting evidence and conclusion, depending, of course, on what you’re presenting. When preparing your key points, make sure to craft deliberate segues from point to point, as doing so will take the onus off your on-the-spot creativity, which will be likely be flagging during your speech.

The more you prepare beforehand, the more confident you’ll be when the time comes. Creating a tightly structured PowerPoint and some easy-to-read index cards, and then practicing using those materials, will make it such that by the time it’s actually time to present, you’ll just be running through a script that you’ve practiced to perfection.

2. Plan Your Eye Contact

A good presentation entails that you look out at the crowd, not at your notes or behind you at your slides. So before you present, pick three spots to focus on during the presentation. These spots can be three people in the class that you know well or areas on the walls that are at eye level. Since most people with anxiety have issues with the eye-contact aspect of a presentation, choosing focus areas can be integral to overcoming that challenge.

Since anxiety can make it hard to focus during the presentation, you may even want to insert self-cues into your notes or slide presentation, such as reminders to “look up at the class” or “pause for a deep breath.” Every little benchmark you embed in your presentation will feel like a light house guiding you in a storm; reaching each one will give you a tiny jolt of confidence that you’re on track, everything is going according to plan and that if you just continue to stick to the program, you’ll be absolutely fine.

Practicing your eye contact is critical when you struggle with locking eyes normally (Image via Grad Drag)

3. Just Breathe

If you have anxiety, there is a good chance that you are already familiar with breathing exercises, as they can be an effective way to deal with stress in general, not just when presenting a speech to a class.

If you have never worked with any breathing routines, google some and try a few out during your practice sessions; if they feel helpful, then bust them out before your presentation. If you already have a few breathing techniques in your back pocket, running through a few before your presentation can be a great way to feel grounded. If you are delivering a group presentation, practice deep breathing before it’s your turn.

Whether you choose to use them or not, make sure to make that choice prior to the day of your presentation, as last-minute decisions will decrease your feeling of control over the situation. If you are planning to do some breath exercises, practice those during your prep sessions so when the big day comes, every part of your routine is comfortable and established.

4. Allot for Mistakes

The worst thing you can do before a presentation is set high standards, as doing so can cause you to mess up and make your anxiety worse. In fact, it can even benefit you to have a set quota of expected mistakes. When I present, I assume I will have at least one or two hiccups, so when they happen, they feel like part of the plan rather than an unexpected mistake.

Allotting for a mistake or two will reduce the pressure you feel, as it will protect you from berating yourself if you stumble. Plus, if you expect to make a mistake or two and you don’t, then the feeling of success you’ll experience after the speech will be even better than had you simply met your expectations. It’s not a matter of aiming low, however, as preparing yourself for failure is certainly not the answer. You should be realistic about your capabilities, prepare as much as you can and plan for a tiny mistake cushion. If you don’t need it, then all the better.

5. Get Excited

Generally you don’t get to pick your presentation topic, so finding a component of your presentation that genuinely interests you will vastly increase the amount you invest in it. The positive energy that is created by your enthusiasm about a topic can do wonders in combatting the negative energy of your anxiety. Getting caught up in a topic that you find fascinating makes it much easier to forget—at least a little bit—about the fact that you’re living your worst nightmare.

Plus, if you let your professor know that you struggle with anxiety and they see you really getting into a topic, they’ll see how much you must care about the subject. So, if at all possible, find at least one little segment of your presentation that you can get excited about.

6. Pick a Small Role

Let’s be real: Just because you can practice and polish your way to giving a half-decent presentation in no way means that you want to be up in front of the class. All the previous tips were centered on the idea of making the best of a bad situation.

The smartest advice? Try and snag the smallest role possible. Take on the tiniest easiest part, or get out of speaking entirely if you can. While you should try and learn how to channel your anxiety in college, as—make no mistake—you will need to be able to overcome it later in the professional world, it never hurts to know yourself and play to your strengths. If you have to give a speech, then go out there and kill it. But no one said that speech had to be long.

Angela Herbst, Lakeland University

Writer Profile

Angela Herbst

Lakeland University
Psychology & Writing

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