Presentation Nerves: Churchill’s Bitter Lesson

Many people blame nerves for ruining good presentations. But nerves can have a very positive effect on our performance and even lift a presentation from the mediocre to the unforgettable.

Winston Churchill.

Ask someone to think of a great orator and, very often, that is whom many will think of first.

Or was he such a great orator? Read on. I think I might have a surprise for you.

Some years ago, Brooke Knapp, the US female test pilot said:

“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are afraid, and those who are also afraid but go ahead anyway.”

She wasn’t talking specifically about presentations, but she articulated the issue many face when called upon to present: dealing with nerves.

How Nerves make us feel

All of us who have ever presented to a group however large, must have felt those nerves: the butterflies that dance anarchically around the rim of our stomachs as we wait to face our audience. Of course there are some who have no fear; individuals who present like they were born to it. And let’s be honest, they probably were.

But let’s turn to us lesser mortals. Those who, when asked to present, experience a primeval fear. A fuzzy terror that eventually comes to dog every waking moment until the presentation is finally over.

Research in the USA revealed that the fear of delivering a presentation was greater than the fear of death itself. To many, the prospect of a presentation is akin to suffering dentistry without the anaesthetic. In fact, there are some who’d prefer the dentistry.

So how do you get rid of the nerves? The simple answer is – you don’t.

Nerves and Energy

Our advice is you hang on to those nerves. Hang on to them like a Bedouin tribesman hangs on to water. Like a car cannot run without fuel, a good presenter cannot perform without some nerves. The skill is to take the nerves and convert them into energy. Turn them into passion.

Everybody we’ve ever met who has to perform – actors, singers, comedians – will tell you that the nerves are everything. They get your body into a state ready for an important exertion.

Nerves are the first important stage of a successful performance. They are nature’s way of readying the body for action. Your job is to reach for those nerves, feel the raw energy they give, and to pull the crackling, fizzing vigour into your muscle fibre.

Take the nerves, the fear, and convert it into power: the power to look your audience in the eye; the power to pause after a major point; the power to use your upper body confidently and expressively.

Many people who consider themselves experienced presenters will state, unequivocally, that they all feel those nerves. They care passionately and want to get it right. Their anxiety is driven by the need to do justice to their message.

To many, that comes as a shock.

“They always look so confident. So assured!”

A front that masks the turmoil within. The more you present, the more convincing that mask becomes. One excellent presenter told us: “If I don’t feel nervous before a presentation for whatever reason, then I make myself nervous. I remind myself what might go wrong or how many people I’ll be facing. Then I get a charge that fires me up to go.”

When you don’t feel those nerves and then go out and present, your pride in your self-assuredness could be leading you by the nose to the biggest fall of all.

Preparation is Everything

But let us give you some practical advice that helps you have the right kind of nerves.

The very worst feeling you can have before you present is to know that you have not prepared enough. So you must do the following:

  • Book time in your diary for designing and planning your presentation
  • Book a room where you will not be disturbed and tell people to only interrupt you if it is extremely urgent
  • Once you have completed your presentation, look at your original brief and check that you have met the presentation criteria
  • Leave the presentation and return to it fresh for fine-tuning
  • Give the presentation OUT LOUD to either an imaginary audience or a colleague who will give you honest, constructive feedback
  • Practise the day / night before the presentation and check timings
  • Never over-rehearse. Bring the presentation to a simmer and cook the presentation on the day to a perfect finish

It’s not foolproof. But it will make sure you’ve given yourself every chance by getting the basics right.

Learning from the Great Presenters

Oh, and Churchill?

In 1908, young Winston stood up to deliver a speech to the house and…dried up. Embarrassed coughs ricocheted off the oak panelling. Ministerial bottoms shifted uneasily on the green benches. Kind fellows uttered helpful prompts but all to no avail.

Nothing would utter from his open mouth.

He never forgot that experience and vowed from that day forward to always meticulously prepare his speeches. And although he wrote – and presented – some of the most memorable sentences in the English language, each was carefully prepared, written out and practised.

Apparently, he still got nervous. But the nerves were driven by the need to communicate messages that lit torches of hope in a dark and dangerous world.

Our nerves may not be rooted in the same noble aspiration, but if we prepare ourselves as Churchill learned to do, then our impact may resound in people’s minds long after our projector has dimmed.

Training and Management Books

With our publishing partners.