The prospect of making a presentation can strike fear into the hearts of even the hardiest souls.
As the day of your presentation approaches, your confidence drains away and nervousness takes its toll, leaving you in presentation paralysis.
Cognitive Behavioural Theory, as pioneered by US psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron T Beck, suggests that the root of all the psychological angst lies not in the reality of having to make a presentation, but in the nature of our thoughts.
As Shakespeare wrote, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Who knew he was into CBT?
How can Cognitive Behavioural techniques help?
One of the key tools Dr. Albert Ellis came up with is the very simple A B C technique. Like all the best tools it’s very easy to use, but has great effect.
A is the Activating Event, in this case the looming presentation.
B is the Beliefs held about the event.
C is the Consequences, in this case loss of confidence, performance anxiety and ultimately a nerve riddled presentation.
Ellis proposed that the key to becoming free from these awkward consequences was to focus on B – the beliefs held about presenting, and to challenge these unhelpful beliefs. Many of us simply assume that a natural consequence of an approaching presentation is fear, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be so.
How do Beliefs interfere?
Cognitive techniques work around the principle that our thinking distorts reality, and that we therefore live in a false reality of our own making. The upside of this is that with a bit of work we have the power to change this reality.
One of the main ways we distort with thoughts is through using MUST statements, for example:
‘My presentation must be perfect.’
‘I must show no signs of nerves or weakness.’
‘I must answer every question brilliantly.’
‘I must be hugely entertaining and make everyone laugh.’
The trouble with MUST statements is that they place enormous pressure on you; they are extremely unhelpful!
Notice when you are unnecessarily pressuring yourself with MUST statements, and don’t let yourself get away with it. It’s vital to challenge these distorted beliefs with more helpful statements such as:
‘I’d like to give a perfect presentation, but I can’t control everything, and if it goes a bit off track it could be fun.’
‘Everyone understands nerves, and people appreciate when a presenter is authentic with an audience.’
‘Someone is bound to ask a tricky question, it always happens, so if I can’t answer it I’ll see if anyone else in the audience can help.’
By amending the MUST thinking, you create options and begin to realise that the presentation isn’t as make or break as you believe.
Another way of helping yourself in the run up to a presentation is with a spot of mental rehearsal. We all know that successful people visualise themselves being successful, which certainly makes you feel good, but another option is to visualise all your worst fears coming true.
Imagine the laptop not working, the nerves taking over, the audience yawning and asking impossible questions. Face all these fears in your imagination. Take them on.
Imagine yourself coping with all the catastrophes you fear. Picture yourself regaining composure after you’ve completely blanked, see yourself accepting an impossible question and offering to find the answer at a later date, imagine turning a bored audience into a fascinated one.
Rather than allowing the fears to fester and dominate, begin to tackle them in your mind’s eye as part of your presentation rehearsal process.
Cognitive Behavioural techniques don’t have all the answers, but they’re certainly worth practising if you tend to feel presentation panic on a regular basis.
Here's some useful tips from the Mayo Clinic on overcoming public speaking fear.