We’ve written a blog about presentations for each of the Brain Rules. Number 8 deals with stress: we look at what presenters and presentation design agencies might learn from John Medina’s findings.

Brain rule #8: Stress

Presentation stress and nerves can affect anyone – it can even affect the audience! For the presenter, fear of public speaking can be controlled to an extent, but it’s quite a big deal.
Our strongest inherent fear is based around survival, our brains are built to deal with stressful situations that last around 30 seconds (i.e. the time it takes to flee or be eaten by a predator). Brain are less equipped to deal with long term stress when you feel like you have no control. So it’s no surprise that public speaking might produce a melt down! If only presentations were 30 seconds! So even though our actual survival might technically not be in question (no sabre-toothed tigers in the front row), it could be that our job is on the line, or the fear of social humiliation (and therefore rejection) is overwhelmingly strong. This stress is real.

3 ways to help deal with presentation stress:

1) Really know your material: this helps your confidence so you’re more able to ad lib and speak freely. We believe it’s best not to memorise your words, but to let the content flow naturally. Not reading off your slides will assist your natural flow providing you have some visual prompts and a clear visualised structure to help your brain (and the audience’s) follow your narrative.

2) Rehearse: writing something and reading something are not the same. The way we express ourselves in written and spoken form differs, so we should present accordingly. Rehearse using everyday language – be conversational in your delivery like you would in real life. This massively helps your audience to understand your message, and you can ditch longer words and jargon while you’re at it. A conversational style also increases the rapport you might have with your audience. Talk to them like they are friends, use that language. And really importantly: rehearse to also know your slides and where/when the clicks should occur!

3) Get confident: One way to confidence is to convince your brain that you can do something. Fake it until you make it. Enrol in a course like toastmasters for example which allows you to progress at your own rate (and is full of fellow learners). You’ll get constant feedback in helpful constructive sandwiches. Not only will you meet other nervous speakers which will surely help you feel less bad, but if you stick to the course you’ll improve. We’re not all naturally gifted at public speaking. It does take practise, but this practise will boost your confidence. And the new found confidence will make you more convincing.

Don’t stress your audience with cognitive overload

John Medina’s Brain Rules say “Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.”

So yes, stress is definitely linked to your effectiveness as a public speaker. But what if your audience is also feeling stressed? Perhaps, they won’t be able to absorb your message or fully understand your presentation. We can’t control their lives, but we can make the presentation experience better for them.

First up, your presentation needs a nice clear structure, and slides that are clean, uncluttered and free from cognitive overload. Your audience will thank you for it, and their brains will feel less stressed by a simple and understandable message delivery. Don’t make them work harder than they need to!

Relevance is key

Next, the best way to get your audience to believe and enjoy your talk is to make it relevant to them. The presentation needs to engage and interest them and the best way to do this is to make sure you state your key message right at the start. The rest of your presentation should then be backing up or providing evidence of this message. It’s a very convincing strategy. Recommended by Cliff Atkinson of Beyond Bullet Points, and we’re proud to be a presentation design agency that offers this presentation strategy to our clients.

Equally, your delivery also affects the audience. If the speaker is obviously stressed or nervous, it can make the audience feel ill at ease. It’s a distraction for listeners; and your message that you so desperately want to communicate is likely to be diluted.

Ready to remove some of the nasty stress? Re-read our above tips 1-3, put them into action, and reduce your presentation stress!


Frequently Asked Questions:

How can I deal with presentation stress?
Dealing with presentation stress involves several strategies. First, thoroughly know your material to boost confidence and enable a more natural delivery. Second, rehearse your presentation to make your spoken delivery smooth and conversational, which helps build rapport with your audience. Third, work on building your confidence through practise. By preparing in these ways, you can significantly reduce your presentation stress.

Why does presentation stress occur?
Presentation stress occurs because our brains are not well-equipped to handle prolonged stress so they struggle with the longer-term stress of something like public speaking. The fear of social humiliation or job-related consequences can trigger significant stress. Understanding this can help in managing and reducing presentation stress.

How can I prevent my audience from experiencing stress during my presentation?
To prevent your audience from experiencing stress during your presentation, ensure your slides are clear, uncluttered, and free from cognitive overload. Engaging and relevant content will also maintain their interest and make your message more convincing. By making your presentation straightforward and relevant, you can reduce the cognitive load on your audience, thereby reducing their stress.

How does my stress as a presenter affect my audience?
Your presentation stress can have a direct impact on your audience. If you appear stressed or nervous, it can make your audience feel uncomfortable and distracted, which may hinder their ability to absorb your message. To prevent this, aim to reduce your own stress through preparation and practise.