Presentation Skills

Why Do People Get Nervous When They Present?

Jerry Seinfeld once joked: “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death.” He claimed that people would rather die than give a speech at a funeral!

In fact, that’s not true – he probably made up the statistics for his joke. However, it is true that most people get nervous when they need to give a presentation.

In another article, I’ll talk about ways to reduce the fear of public speaking, but in this article, I’d like to talk about WHY people get nervous when speaking in public and what happens to your body. It’s my belief that you need to understand what causes the fear before you can begin to reduce it.

Before I begin, I’d like to mention that this is a controversial subject in that fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is not perfectly understood and other experts may have differing opinions from what you read here.

Perceived threat

Imagine that you are walking alone at night on a dark street. Suddenly, a man wearing a black mask jumps out from behind a tree.

Your brain understands that this is a threat and you feel fear! Your body increases your level of adrenaline (energy) and you become more focused and more aware. Now, you can deal with the situation – you can fight or you can run away. This is called the fight or flight response. (Flight in this context means ‘running away’.)

When you give a presentation, a similar thing happens. Your brain perceives the situation as a threat and increases the level of adrenaline. Why does your brain perceive speaking in front of an audience as a threatening situation? We’ll come to that in a moment. First let’s understand your body’s response.

Because your level of adrenaline is increased, you have extra energy. Your body has to process that energy somehow – it’s why people shake when they’re nervous. Some people start to speak more quickly than normal. Some people speak louder than normal. Some people tense up their body. Some people use more gestures than normal.

Note that some of these things are bad and some of them are positive! For example, it is bad to tense up and speak too quickly. However, it is good to speak louder and to move around and use gestures – these are all techniques that good presenters use!

Why does your body perceive public speaking as a threat?

Now this is a difficult question to answer.

Some people may think it is due to shyness, but I disagree.

Most people have no problem simply standing on a stage in front of an audience – it is the actual act of speaking that causes problems. Yes, some people do have a general phobia of being in social situations and I accept that this unusual type of shyness will make it difficult to give a presentation.

However, most “shy” people are introverts. An introvert, technically, is a person who feels more comfortable being alone than with other people. That doesn’t mean you need to feel nervous or afraid in front of an audience; it just means you feel more comfortable on your own.

By the way, don’t think that you can never give a good presentation if you are shy or an introvert. A good presentation requires a series of skills that anyone can learn. Yes, an extrovert may have a natural ability to talk in front of others and a shy person may need to make more effort, but it can be done. I’m an introvert, according to the standard definition, and I give presentations all the time!

As I mentioned, I don’t believe that nervousness when public speaking is due to shyness, I believe that it is due to the mixed signals that your brain receives from the audience.

What do I mean by this? Consider the scenario when you are talking to a friend one-on-one, face-to-face, telling a story about something that happened to you. Think about how you talk. You say one or two sentences and then you watch your friend's face – your friend smiles or nods; maybe he looks confused or looks like he wants to cut in with a question. Based on this feedback, you either continue your story, clarify a point or stop and let your friend speak. Your friend maintains a friendly, open facial expression while you are doing this (unless you have weird friends!).

Compare this to speaking to an audience. Some people in the audience may smile or look friendly, but they have no social obligation to do so. Instead, they are more likely to show their “resting face” – a lack of expression which may even look hostile or unfriendly.

I have personally experienced a situation where a lady looked very unfriendly and hostile throughout my 20-minute talk at a conference. And she was sitting right in the front row. After my session, I was shocked when she came up to me and told me how much she enjoyed my presentation!

So, the signals that you receive from the audience can confuse and disturb you. On top of that, you are receiving multiple mixed signals at a time. One person looks interested. Another doesn’t. One audience member looks happy. Another looks hostile. Some people are paying attention, some not. Some people are frowning.

These signals overwhelm you and that is why your body perceives it as a threatening situation.

But an experienced presenter has learned to ignore these signals. An experienced presenter can filter the signals out and continue happily with the presentation.

In addition, some people find it less stressful to present to a large number of people (in the 100s, for example), because you can’t see their individual faces – you just see a “block” of people. This has been my experience, too.

It’s also less stressful to present to a small group of, say, four people. A small group like this will be more aware of their interactions with you – they will behave more or less as if in a one-to-one conversation with you. And you can deal with a small number of mixed signals.

Something that makes everyone nervous

I mentioned that experienced presenters don’t get nervous because they have learned how to deal with mixed signals from the audience.

However, there is one thing that can make even experienced presenters nervous. Can you guess what it is?

Lack of preparation, or lack of knowledge of what you are talking about.

An unprepared presenter or a presenter that doesn’t actually know their topic will always feel nervous. In this case, it’s nothing to do with mixed signals, but it’s our fear of being judged.

In theory, this is easy to deal with: always make sure you are well-prepared and don’t let your boss make you give a presentation about something you know nothing about.

Well, it’s easy in theory, but work can be hectic and bosses can be very demanding. Still, you should always try to avoid being unprepared for a presentation!

Fear is good?

In a separate article, I will give my tips on dealing with fear of public speaking, but for now, I want to end with this thought: Is it good to be nervous?

My answer is, yes, it is good to be a little nervous. A speaker who is a little nervous can give a better presentation than a speaker who is not nervous at all!

Why? As we discussed, fear is a way of injecting extra energy into your system. You can use that extra energy to speak louder and more passionately. The extra energy will help you to move around the stage more naturally and use hand gestures.

Think of politicians, who give speeches all the time and are not nervous about it. Many politicians are terrible, boring speakers because they lack energy!

Business leaders often make better speakers, because they speak less often and maintain some nervous energy - and are often more passionate about their topics than politicians are.

So the key is to turn that negative energy (fear) into positive energy (passion).