Presentation anxiety is a natural byproduct of being human and placing value into the judgments and decisions of other individuals; but, with so much at stake in the court of law, its effects are more debilitating for lawyers than they are for most professionals. Indeed, a majority of lawyers have, at least once, experienced some semblance of “stage fright”: a phenomenon in which the body’s physiological response to nervousness hinders one’s ability to perform. While many veteran lawyers find ways to combat their anxiety, and other simply grow numb to the pressure, a surprising proportion of lawyers still struggle with varying degrees of stage fright.
Fortunately, there are ways to harvest your nervous energy and channel it directly into your success. By properly training your body and mind, you can easily set yourself up for a painless, confident delivery on any presentation or public speaking project.
Prepare your body.
1. Satisfy your stomach.
Snickers said it best: “You’re not you when you’re hungry." Indeed, an empty or poorly-nourished stomach can be incredibly distracting, and can prevent you from hitting your usual stride during a presentation. Plan ahead and have a sumptuous, healthy meal prior to your debut; for an extra boost, drink citrus juice, which lowers blood pressure and eases anxiety. If you’re on a tight schedule, just grab the essentials: water and a pack of gum. While staying hydrated will help you focus and prevent dry mouth (a common symptom of anxiety), chewing gum can relieve tension and give your body the sensation of eating - so you’ll feel less hungry than you really are. Just remember to spit your gum out before presenting.
2. Shake it off - literally.
Get up, get active, and get pumped up on endorphins! Light exercise is a great outlet for your pre-presentation jitters - and it’ll flood your body with mood-elevating hormones. If you don’t have time for a full workout (and shower) before your presentation, find an activity that won’t drench you in sweat: take a quick walk or do some deskercise while brushing up on your presentation notes.
3. Play the part.
One of the best things you can teach yourself is how to fake it til you make it (“it” being your confidence, of course, not your entire closing argument). Behavioral psychology is potent; if you see yourself as a winner, you’re more likely to act like one. From your attire to your posture, aim to look powerful (check out this BI article and this TED blog post for more info on power posing), but don’t compromise your comfort in the process. Remind yourself that you don’t look as nervous as you feel, and that nobody in your audience will be scrutinizing your stutter or your nervous tics - as long as you appear generally confident, they’ll be paying more attention to your content than your mannerisms.
Prepare your mind.
Repetition is key - and so is understanding how your brain works. If last-minute cramming got you through law school, your brain might be used to that pressure; so don’t be afraid to start slow and kick your practice runs into high gear just before your presentation. On the other hand, if procrastination tends to leave you flustered, start practicing far ahead of time, and claim some final moments of clarity by putting your notes away at least an hour before your presentation.
2. Visualize success… AND failure.
Instead of freaking out the night before a presentation, close your eyes and calmly, rationally, walk through the best- and worst-case scenarios. Think about your previous victories, what factors contributed to each outcome, and how you felt when you realized your success; then imagine yourself feeling the same level of satisfaction about the presentation at hand. Visualize each step it would take to get there, and convince yourself that this “fantasy” is not only doable - it’s probable.
Next, face your fears: make each of your concerns tangible and realizable, and play them out in your mind. BE REALISTIC. This will help you digest the fact that most mistakes are reparable, especially if you’re prepared to face them (see Karen Lisko’s advice on creating go-to recovery lines to hide your screw-ups). In many cases, your audience won’t even recognize your mistake until you make it evident; if you’re in court, however, your opponent might. Brace yourself for this possibility by securing any holes and loose ends in your case; as long as your argument is solid, your recoveries will be much smoother.
3. Know what to expect.
Control as many factors as you can by getting to know your venue and your audience/opponent ahead of time. Do your research: find out who you’re up against, how favorable your audience will be, and what extraneous variables may affect your presentation. If possible, arrive early to watch other presenters (and see how the crowd reacts to each) or speak with a few audience members to create a sense of familiarity - while you present, you’ll find comfort in the faces you recognize as friendly.
4. Check yourself.
Chances are, your presentation isn’t actually about you - it’s about whatever content or case you’re trying to put forward. Keep this perspective in mind, and remember that your mission is far more important than your pride. If you stutter, stumble, or otherwise compromise your grace and eloquence, forgive yourself and focus on what really matters: making your point.
Ultimately, overcoming stage fright is a process, and it’s important to remain patient. Measure and reward your progress, but don’t lose hope if you think you’re moving slowly - even the most tenured veterans still get nervous sometimes. For more information on dealing with anxiety and creating a healthier career, check out our comprehensive white paper:
The Busy Lawyer’s Guide to Healthy Work/Life Balance.