We all know what it’s like to be nervous when we have an important meeting or presentation, but how can we successfully manage our nerves to put our best foot forward? People often say to me, “I’m feeling OK and then my gremlin appears on my shoulder, tells me why I’m not good enough and I lose my confidence.” The gremlin is our inner voice whispering – at just the wrong moment — that we’re “not… enough.” Perhaps we’re “not smart enough” or “not experienced enough” or “not knowledgeable enough.”
Nervousness does matter. It often leads us to use what researchers term “powerless” language, which is effectively the opposite of being clear, articulate and succinct. The challenge is that this can reduce our audience’s “thought confidence” in us. They may begin to question whether we have confidence in ourselves, and then consider why we don’t have confidence. Subconsciously, they can begin to doubt whether they should have confidence in us and our message — if we doubt ourselves, shouldn’t they follow our lead? They are more likely to generate counter-arguments to our message and divert their attention to think about us as a speaker personally rather than what it is we’re saying. Not exactly what we want as a speaker! This is regardless of whether it’s a large presentation, a small meeting or just an important one-to-one.
Here are six ways to overcome your nervousness gremlin and put your best foot forward.
1. Listen to the gremlin. Then talk back. Make a note the next time you hear it, exactly the phrases that the gremlin says to you. Then when you’re in a calm, non-emotionally-charged moment, consider what you rationally believe to be true and come up with counter-statements. An example could be, “You’re not technically good enough on this topic.” Your response could be, “I’m not trying to be a technical expert, and my place is as a strong generalist focusing on business application.”
2. Choose courage over confidence. It’s actually easier to purposefully choose to be courageous than it is to build our confidence in a particular moment. Recognizing that we’re lacking confidence and realizing that we don’t exactly know how to be more confident can actually make us have even less confidence. But we can choose courage. “Yes, I’m a little afraid. Yes, I’m nervous. But I’m doing it anyway!” This proactive step in choosing courage can lead to a positive psycho-physiological response and enable us to “show up” better.
3. Breathe your way through it. When mom said to “take deep breaths” she really needed to clarify that it’s just as important, if not more so, to breathe out. I learned this the hard way when I hyperventilated right before my first big presentation and was taken from the client office to hospital. Before your meeting, take effective deep breaths by breathing in for 3-4 counts and out for 5-6. In addition to the positive physiological impact, having to focus on the uneven counting gives your brain a direct-experience moment: a break from the forward-thinking narrative where we spend most of our mental energy (which is largely what induces nerves — thinking ahead about what may or may not happen). Your brain may be yelling, “I’m nervous!” but soon your body will calmly respond, “I’m fine.”
4. Know your strengths. Write down your strengths, skills and achievements. There’s a reason you’ve been asked into the room. Regardless of how you feel, most likely you are the right person. And it was probably someone more senior, experienced or specialized who invited you to this meeting or to give this presentation. Even if you can’t trust your own judgement about whether you’re the right person for the role, trust their experience and belief that you are.
5. Start developing yourself. If you decide there’s any truth to the gremlin’s message, address it by starting to learn/train/develop in that particular field or area. Whether it’s by doing a course, being proactive about getting more on-the-job learning or reading industry updates, when we’re on the journey of developing ourselves we have increased confidence knowing that even though we may not be 100% “enough” now, we’re on our way.
6. Recognize nervousness as a sign of something good. For most of us, nervousness comes with new opportunities and challenges. If we didn’t have that awful feeling occasionally, that would suggest we’re not pushing our boundaries. People who live inside their comfort zone and continue to do the same work feel comfortable. They don’t feel nervous. If you’re feeling nervous, remind yourself it’s most likely because you’re pushing your career forward. One day the situation that currently makes you nervous will be your new norm, and then it will be time to seek out new nerve-inducing opportunities. Knowing you’re choosing to engage in the very thing that’s making you nervous makes it easier to push back your shoulders and knock off that gremlin.