When Presenting, Get Excited, Not Nervous!

Recent research from Harvard’s Business School demonstrates that being excited prior to a nerve-wracking task increases performance and confidence. Professor Alison Wood Brooks conducted a number of studies in which she found people who focused on being excited felt and did better on the task they were set to complete (e.g., solving challenging math problems or singing karaoke well).

For our purposes, she also examined how this effect worked in a public speaking situation. Her study asked participants to prepare and then deliver a persuasive speech. To increase the likelihood of speaker anxiety, each participant was digitally recorded for review and evaluation by judges. Prior to speaking, participants were told to state out loud one of the following lines: “I am excited” or “I am calm.” When compared to their “calm” compatriots, “excited” speakers were rated by external evaluators as less nervous, more competent, and more persuasive.

Since the physiological manifestations of anxiety and excitement are similar, such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, flushing, etc., Dr. Brooks believes reframing anxious arousal as excitement is a relatively easy way to trick ourselves into avoiding the negative effects of nervousness. Trying to calm down while nervous can help manage speaking anxiety, but it can be challenging to do in the moment and definitely requires a lot of cognitive effort.

Specifically, Dr. Brooks suggests that nervous people tend to ruminate on their internal, anxiety feelings, which leads to a negative outlook on the speaking situation and reinforces the nervousness. With an attitude of excitement, speakers are likely to be other focused and see presenting as a positive opportunity, which in turn, should reduce their anxiety and increase their confidence and competence.

To facilitate feeling excited about speaking, try the following three behaviors prior to presenting:

1. Say out loud “I am excited about this speaking opportunity.”

2. Identify some exciting possible positive outcomes that could result from your presentation, such as funding for a project you believe in, a job promotion, etc.

3. Visualize yourself being excited about giving your presentation starting a day or two before speaking.

Clearly, reframing your presenting as an exciting opportunity is a great way to help you feel more confident and present more competently.