Will you get the funding you need? Will you get the grade you want? Will you get the help you require? All of these fears — and the myriad of others that nervous presenters have — originate from concerns about potentially negative future outcomes, such as not getting the needed resources, not doing well in a class, or not getting needed support. Since this fear is a result of potential future outcomes, an effective management technique is to focus on the present and avoid thinking about the consequences of your actions. Having a present-oriented experience, sometimes referred to as a flow experience or rapt attention, means you’re so involved in the present that you lose what academics call “objective self-awareness.” In other words, you are so immersed in what you are doing that you lose track of time. You have likely had moments of extreme present orientation in certain situations, like when you play a sport or musical instrument, watch a movie, or engage in a deep conversation with a loved one.
There are many ways to become more present oriented from which speakers can benefit. I know a professional speaker who plays the video game Tetris prior to speaking. The game is so compelling for her that she forgets about her worries about not succeeding in delivering her message. Listening to music is another tool that can help induce a present-oriented perspective. Find a song or a play list that you find engaging and practice becoming absorbed in it. Using humor can also be a fun way to become present oriented. Watch a funny video clip, listen to a comedy routine, or engage in a humorous exchange. Enjoying a good laugh often involves being highly “in the moment.” Counting backwards from 100 by a difficult number such as 17 or saying tongue twisters can also induce a more present-oriented state.
Recent psychological research that comes from the exploration of engagement with video games suggests that present orientation not only can help presenters feel less nervous prior to speaking, but can also reduce the post-presentation stress many nervous speakers experience. By doing something absorbing and “in the moment” shortly after speaking, anxious presenters prevent their speaking experience from being strongly encoded into memory. For example, playing an engaging video prior to speaking allows for present orientation that distracts you from your concerns about future consequences. Similarly, playing a video game post-presentation distract you from encoding your negative thoughts about your speaking.
Being present helps you focus on your message and connection to your audience – both good things for speakers to do – while distracting you from being as nervous prior to speaking and having your experience as deeply etched in your memory. The bottom line is that you can quite literally game your anxiety.