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How to overcome presentation anxiety, according to an award-winning cognitive scientist

Sian Leah Beilock is a cognitive scientist and expert on excellence under pressure. In her bestselling book throttleBeilock reveals confidence-building strategies for anxiety-provoking events like Olympic competitions, exams, and public speaking opportunities.

Beilock experienced her own high-pressure moment in 2017 when the TED conference invited her to present her research to a live audience. Beilock, now President of Barnard College in New York City, recently spoke to me about applying her research to prepare for the TED phase.

Beilock recognized that TED audiences would have high expectations of an expert teaching people how to avoid choking under pressure. And that’s on top of the stress that already accompanies giving a TED Talk.

“I do a lot of public speaking, but the TED Talk was particularly nerve-wracking because of the aura surrounding it,” Beilock said. “And my mom came to watch — which is just another added pressure!”

Beilock employed an effective strategy to alleviate anxiety in high-stress situations. She calls it pressure training – practicing under pressure.

Practice under pressure

Pressure training simply means practicing your sport or speech in an environment that increases stress hormones. It’s a strategy that works for both Olympic athletes and business people preparing for an important pitch or presentation.

“Even practicing under mild stress can prevent you from suffocating when high stress levels occur,” says Beilock.

Let’s say you’re dreading an upcoming Zoom presentation that your boss has asked you to present to the team. A simple example of practicing under “light stress” would be to schedule a meeting to which only you are invited. Bring up the presentation, share your screen, and press record while holding it from start to finish. Identify the areas where you can improve next time – and there will be another exercise. And another. And another.

For the next practice session, add a little stress by inviting a friend or co-worker to “rehearse.” The point of the exercise is to mimic the environment you’re in when it’s time for the actual presentation. If the presentation is in person, stand up, pick up a clicker, view the presentation on a screen behind you, and hold it out loud. If you can invite someone to sit down and watch in person, that’s even better.

“Simulating low levels of stress helps prevent tearing under increased pressure because people who practice this way learn to stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of what’s coming their way,” says Beilock.

Samples under real conditions

According to Beilock, our brain reacts most negatively before a stressful event and not when it’s actually happening. Have you ever been so terrified of an upcoming presentation that you couldn’t sleep for days – or weeks – only to find out that it wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be? Maybe your presentation was a hit and you wasted hours worrying about it. This is your brain stressing you out before the event.

According to Beilock, the strategy works effectively because it “bridges the gap between training and competition.” By training for the event over and over again in real-world conditions, your brain learns not to see language as a threat, but rather as an event that you can successfully deal with.

According to a recent McKinsey study, communication skills like public speaking and storytelling are among the most important foundational skills needed to “future-proof” your career over the next decade. That means your next presentation is too important to leave to chance. Practice properly – under pressure – and you’ll shine when it counts.

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