How Nerves Can Help or Hurt Your Presentations


I’m not particularly a fan of Patti Smith. Nor of the man she was sent to celebrate, Bob Dylan, who was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

All eyes were on her, because, well, no rocker had ever won a Nobel Prize before and frankly this was more of an opera audience – an august assembly of royalty, statesmen, ambassadors and the cream of the scientific community.

As she told the New Yorker magazine: “I chose to sing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, a song I have loved since I was a teen-ager. From September, every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line.”

But I couldn’t help wince on her behalf as she completely fluffed her lines in the second verse, apologized and got the band to start all over again.


But let’s dissect what happened from a physiological standpoint to understand it, and see what we can learn and avoid in our own presentations and performances.

So she knew her material. “I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.” So far so good.

“But on the morning of the Nobel ceremony, I awoke with some anxiety.” Fingernails for breakfast, like so many executives around the world preparing for their own big shows on far lesser stages.

“I had a perfect rehearsal with the orchestra. I had my own dressing room with a piano.”

There she relaxed with hot soup and tea.

“Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding.”

So here’s a 69-year old music industry veteran of thousands of gigs, Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer, and voted 47th in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Artists of all time. Nervous as all hell.

“The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them. Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.”

Imagine how nervous she might have been had Sir Bob himself actually been in da house.

So, how might she have done things differently?

In presentation skills and pitch coaching workshops (and when I’ve been speaker coach to TEDx speakers) I start with a number of stress-reducing exercises. Get the cortisol levels down.

Cortisol’s the killer that will rip the well-rehearsed lines from your mind, leaving your head empty despite a hundred perfect run-throughs in the mirror.

Amy Cuddy made the stress-reducing ‘Wonder Woman’ power pose famous in her TED talk.

There are several others, chiefly yoga breathing exercises, but the main thing is to acknowledge that you are excited. Fear and excitement surface pretty much the same way in our bodies. You won’t overcome the fear, nor do you want to. The excess adrenaline can give you edge and energy if well channeled.

A friend of mine, Simon, was the head instructor for paratroopers in the British Army in the Far East. A decorated veteran of 3000+ jumps out of perfectly good aeroplanes, I asked him when he lost the nerves, the butterflies in the stomach.

“Never! You never do,” he shot back. “And you don’t want to … otherwise you might become reckless, and forget to triple-check your webbings, harness, etc.”

Every performer will have a different way of getting into their performance zone backstage, to hype up (Hello, Tony Robbins) or calm down. And each is valid if it works for them. And far be it for me to tell Patti how she should be doing it. She’d probably give me a swift kick with a Doc Martin boot that I imagine would send my voice soaring by a couple of octaves.

Of course then come vocal warm-up exercises. You do DO these before a talk or presentation, right?

The mouth, throat and vocal chords are an intricate set of muscles that need to be limbered up, like stretching the hamstrings before a jog or gym workout. Otherwise, you don’t have full control of your mouth and control over tone, pitch, etc.

Singers and actors all have various quirky techniques to warm themselves up, and we should learn from them.

Now, as to being so nervous that the words just don’t come out …

What to do?

We’ve all been in that unenviable, knee-trembling, palm-sweating position.

Firstly, acknowledge your humanity. Admit it. To yourself. And to your audience. They’re human too (er, mostly). It’s no crime to say: “Sorry, I’m really nervous today.” Step aside, take a swig of water, breathe deeply, compose yourself and kick off again.

Watch Patti Smith at around the 2’15” mark where she stuffs up. She just says straight up with a slightly embarrassed schoolgirl smile. “Sorry. Can we start again? I’m so nervous.” At which point the crowd gives her a rousing cheer. Then she does it a second time, and nails it.

Rule #1 through all of this is to Be You. Be yourself – everyone else is taken. And by displaying human-ness, and vulnerability, the crowd is subconsciously drawn into your camp because they feel for you, empathically, and – here’s the thing – they WANT you to succeed.

Gerry Spence, America’s ‘winningest’ undefeated trial lawyer, advises us that: “After 50 years making presentations, I’ve learned one thing for certain – it all begins with the person, with who each of us is.” (Yes, I know, a lawyer teaching us to be human!)

We need to understand our uniqueness, understand the power which comes with being genuine, authentic, true to ourselves.

Because if you behave like a grey-suited corporate automaton, they might wish failure to rain down hard on you because you’re a soulless try-hard wannabe.

And on that note, might I change my tune and say, OK, Patti, you made me a fan. Because you are 100% you. You imitated no one. And you dared to put it out there in all your beautiful human imperfection.