My experience with stress during big presentations is usually a double whammy.
First, there’s the delightful combination of sweaty palms, shaky legs, and violent heart palpitations. And then, there’s my desperate attempt to conceal all that from my audience, feigning the calmness of a Zen Buddhist monk.
In other words, I’ve got anxiety about the presentation and then “meta-anxiety” about masking my feelings.
I figured (hoped?) I wasn’t the only one facing this dilemma — and so about a year ago, I called up Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and the author of “What Every BODY is Saying.”
I wanted Navarro to tell me how to make the second part of the stress package easier — how to manage the impression you make on other people when you’re nervous. How do you control those behaviors that are dead giveaways of how anxious you are?
His answer: Don’t.
“The first thing I tell people is, if you’re nervous, there’s a good reason for it,” he said. Maybe you’re meeting people for the first time or going on a job interview, or giving that dreaded presentation. “Go ahead and front that; don’t try to conceal it.”
Navarro said acknowledging that you’re nervous — and being okay with that — can actually help alleviate some of your anxiety:
“Stress is a natural event, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to control it, when sometimes it’s just easier to admit, ‘I’m nervous, and I should let others know about it.'”
Navarro’s advice on conquering anxiety boils down to a three-step strategy:
1. Declare to yourself that you’re anxious.
2. Declare to your audience that you’re anxious.
3. Adapt your nervous behaviours.
The first step is perhaps the hardest. Research suggests that, in stressful situations, people’s general impulse is to try to calm down. Admitting that you’re anxious means making yourself somewhat vulnerable and allowing yourself to feel, instead of trying to suppress, those emotions as usual.
The irony is that your audience may be more understanding of your anxiety than you are. Step two involves telling your listeners that you’re nervous — a simple statement like, “Boy, it’s tough talking to a big group” should suffice.
Novarro predicted that your audience will smile in response because not only do they want you to succeed, but they also likely understand exactly what it’s like to have your nerves get the better of you. That reaction will help you relax.
The third step allows you to tweak your nervous tics — without eliminating them entirely — so that you don’t look quite so frazzled.
For example, if you know that you tend to wring your hands or twirl your hair when you’re under stress, try slowing down the behaviors. If you bite your lip, practice doing it more gently. You’ll still get the soothing effect of engaging in these repetitive actions, but it won’t be so noticeable to your audience.
You can also redirect the behaviors to a less visible part of your body. Instead of continually touching your face, you can tap your leg under the table where no one can see it.
A few months after speaking with Navarro, I met Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who’s studied the relationship between meaning and happiness, and how anxiety plays into both. According to his research, thoughts and experiences that lead to anxiety — like job interviews, presentations, and tough projects — often contribute to a sense of meaning because you’re involved in something challenging and interesting, Baumeister told me.
Baumeister’s findings go back to Navarro’s first step in dealing with anxiety: If you can accept that your nerves signal that you’re doing something important, it becomes easier to declare to yourself that you’re anxious, instead of pretending you’re fine.
Ultimately, while there are plenty of strategies for making yourself look more composed, Navarro said the bottom line is that you should expect to feel anxious once in a while.
“We mustn’t assume that life is supposed to be without any kind of stress.”