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I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you):

All people new to presenting need to know this:

It’s OK to be nervous.

Nearly all those excellent presenters you see at conferences still get nervous. Being nervous actually makes you a better presenter. Embrace nervous. Nervous is your presenting best buddy!

The topic of performance nerves came up on a recent twitter chat I was involved in. Several well known presenters (in the Oracle sphere) all made similar comments, on how they have been doing this for years and that, though you get better at handling the butterflies in the stomach, they still bat madly in your insides before the show starts.

I won’t name names, but over half of the best speakers at UKOUG conferences (as measured by feedback scores) have confirmed to me that they still get nervous. And nearly all of them say the nerves help. Yes, help.

The degree to which you get nervous obviously varies from person to person and if, rather than nerves, it is fear so bad that you want to throw up, then presenting is probably not for you. I say probably – I know of a couple of people personally who seriously wonder if they can do it without losing their last meal, each and every time, and yet they still present. But for most of us presenters the nerves are there. Even those who seem totally at peace, smile warmly as they start, and have not a trace of quiver in the voice – they are nervous.

The first time you present is of course special. You don’t know how you are going to do, you worry.  Will you forget something, will someone have a pop at you, will you freeze, are you an idiot impostor who does not know your stuff? Well, actually those thoughts do remain with many of us, even after years of presenting. But actually, they are baseless fears. Let’s just cover them off:

  • No one knows what you are going to say, so if you forget something then 95% of the time no one in the audience will notice. And if they do notice and ask, well say “Wow! Yeah! Thanks for that, I must say something about…” and off you go.
  • You may well hit a point when you freeze. The next slide comes up, you look at it and realise you have no idea what it is about. In fact, you might suspect it is not even your slide… and for an age you stand there like an idiot, people knowing you forgot… Only, what seems an age to you is about 3 seconds – and the audience think you are just pausing to let them catch up. There really is a massive difference between the pause you experience and the pause the audience does. In fact, one thing I have learned over the years is that I *should* pause occasionally. It makes a better presentation.
  • You know your stuff, you picked the topic. If you really do not know your stuff you should not present. But you do not need to know every last detail and gotcha. If you can tell a work colleague about the topic or, better still, describe it to your mum (other relatives will do) you are fine. And part of why many of us continue to present is, we learn things through presenting. If someone raises a point you did not know, acknowledge it, make sure you understand it – and carry on.
  • No one has a pop at you. When did you last see a talk when someone belittled the presenter? And if you have seen this rare event, you know it is the person having a go who you did not like.

Oddly enough, I’m not trying to stop you being nervous here. I want you to be nervous – but at a level of nervous that is not crippling. You see, those nerves are crucial to you. They are energy and you use that energy to give your presentation an edge. If you do not have some emotion, some drive, then your talk will probably be flat. People I know who perform (play in bands or act ) all say the same – without the nerves, their performance loses something.

Those nerves, that mild (OK, maybe not that mild!) anxiety has a measurable, biological, scientifically understood impact on you. Several hormones are released into your body, including adrenaline and oxytocin, and these hormones “turn up the dial”. Your heart pumps faster and harder, your physical strength increases, you become more aware of your surroundings. Your reaction speed improves and, in some ways, you get smarter. You become the best you for dealing with things – like an audience.

The degree of nerves also varies from talk to talk. I think I suffer from “The SCARY presentation monster” (as my friend Neil Chandler put it) less than many. If it is a technical talk I have done several times I can pretty much jump up on the stage and do it with barely a flutter of insect wings inside. But if I am doing a new talk or, ever so much worse, it is intended to be a humorous talk, then it is bordering on fear for the few moments before I start.

Over the years I have noticed something about my talks. If I am not nervous at all, I tend to do an OK job. It’s fine. I explain the topic, get the information across and everyone is, well, they’re OK with the talk. Sounds bland? That is because it was bland.

If I do a talk and the nerves are there, then I do either a great talk or a poor one. 90% of the time (I like to think!) it is a great talk. The best talks I have done have all been when I am screaming inside “Why in hell am I doing this!”. I did something more like a performance than a talk in Poland 2 years ago. It is probably the closest I have ever been to doing stand-up comedy – and before I started I could have just walked out the venue, it was the worst case of nerves I’ve had in 13 years. I think it was the peak of my presenting career and people said really nice things about it after. I now actually seek out a certain level of anxiety when I present. If there are no nerves before I get up, I will make myself think about what could go wrong, just to turn up that dial a little and make me better prepared to perform.

Nerves before presenting are natural and normal. Handle them, control them, but embrace them. As I said, Nervousness is your presenting best buddy.