Courage in presentation tension


by Ron D’Andrea


91% of people asked thought trying to calm down before giving a speech was the best option. [1] But is it?

Glossophobia. Stage fright. Fear of public speaking. Whatever you call it, it’s very real. A Gallup Poll in 1998 found 45% of people were afraid of public speaking[2], making it second only to the fear of snakes.

Whatever you call it, there’s no question people find speaking to a group of others a daunting prospect. The racing heart, the sweaty palms, the dry mouth and flushed face – our pre-action nerves get the better of many us, making it difficult for us to perform at our best.

As part of a study on how people handle tension, Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks recruited 140 people to give a speech. Some of the group were coached to relax and calm their nerves by repeating ‘I am calm’ to themselves. The other half of the group, were told to repeat ‘I am excited’.


Being excited about giving a speech or presentation seems like a long shot to many of us, especially in a society that has been told for so many years that tension causes headaches, hypertension, heart attacks, strokes and even some cancers.

How do we get past preconceived notions and find excitement in something that scares us? With the increasing amount of tension in modern life, there is also an increasing number of studies, like Wood Brooks’, focusing on how best to deal with it. And the results of most studies show that tension can actually be a good thing.

For students taking exams, for sales professionals delivering a pitch, for executives launching the next big thing, accepting that tension is actually the body preparing itself to perform at its best – instead of it being a negative force – can boost confidence and considerably improve performance.

Funny how that happens

In Alison Wood Brooks’ experiment, it turned out that those who she encouraged to get excited didn’t just enjoy giving their speech more – their audiences also said the talk was more energetic and engaging. Those Wood Brooks had encouraged to calm down lacked the pizazz and charisma the audience was hoping for.

We can look at this result from two positive angles:

  • Those who managed to calm themselves down but gave a lack-luster talk proved we are capable of controlling our physical reactions to tension and can influence the outcome of our emotions.
  • Those who channeled the tension and became excited showed us we can change our mind set, and that a simple change in attitude can transform tension into energy that helps us perform well under pressure.

So, really what we really need to do is welcome rather than reject tension. As James M. Heidema in his blog, Managing Tension, ‘Tension makes us feel alive and involved in life[3].’

In her TEDtalk Make Stress Your Friend, Kelly McGonigal tells us that our heart physically changes its response to tension when tension is welcomed: The heart’s valves open, rather than constrict, and let more blood travel more efficiently than when tension is rejected.

What so many of us seem to be missing, apart from Wood Brooks, McGonigal and co, is how similar the feelings of excitement and joy are to anxiety and tension.

Think of the build up to a big social event – a reunion you’re looking forward to or a surprise birthday for a friend who’s face you can’t wait to see as they are surprised. Does your heart not race? Does your face not flush? Do you not feel butterflies of excitement? These are feelings similar to the physical rush we feel before a presentation or public speech but think of them as negative or debilitating.

We should remember these are the feelings before we step up to give a presentation or have an important one-on-one meeting. This simple change of mindset – no longer assuming our physical reaction to tension is negative – and instead welcoming those feelings as positive will make every important interaction feel more like a surprise birthday party than the arrival of the Apocalypse. (content retired)

James M. Heidema. Managing Tension (blog no longer active)

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