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Being nervous is natural, but you can use it constructively 

Many students get nervous when they are to make a presentation – whether in class or in an exam. It’s only natural. Even professional speakers and professors with many years of lecturing experience know the feeling of butterflies in their stomach and sweaty palms. 

If you are nervous about making an oral presentation, there are different ways to cope with your nervousness and use it constructively. 

Understand your nervousness

Nervousness can take several different forms. It is a good idea first of all to understand what kind of nervousness you are experiencing. Some types of nervousness can influence your performance positively, while others can have a negative impact. 

Types of nervousness 

Constructive nervousness

“Healthy nervousness” that helps you perform at your best: You have butterflies in your stomach and sweaty palms, adrenaline is rushing through your body, and it is difficult for you to keep calm. If you are well-prepared, this kind of nervousness can serve as an adrenaline kick and help to improve your performance. 

Absence of nervousness

You have a positive sense of being energized, of adrenalin rushing through your body, and you feel that you have the situation under control and the audience is with you. Either that, or you really don't care. Feeling comfortable in the situation and having a sense that things will work out one way or the other is a good starting point. But you should not become complacent about the situation and fail to prepare thoroughly. Poor preparation is an expression of disrespect for your audience. Therefore, be professional about the situation, and don't feel tempted to think you can charm your way through it or rely on routine, humour, etc. 

Counterproductive nervousness

Gets out of control and impairs your performance: Your body feels stiff, you have a sense of not being able to control your arms and legs, you go blank, you get dizzy, you have panic attacks and maybe you throw up. If your nervousness is so serious that it impairs your ability to perform, contact the Student Counselling Service. They have many years of experience in helping students who get anxious about oral presentations and exams. Help from the Student Counselling Service is free of charge. Read more on the Student Counselling Service website

Cope with your nervousness

If you tend to get nervous before an oral presentation or exam, you may find it useful to follow some general advice on how, and how not, to act and think. Below is a list of tips on how to prepare yourself physically and mentally for an oral presentation, thus enabling you to use your nervousness constructively. 

Physical preparation 

An effective way to cope with nervousness is to perform some simple physical exercises. 

Breathe deeply down into your belly. Be conscious of your breathing, and make sure that you breathe deeply down into your belly. Slow, calm breathing helps you collect your thoughts and calms your body. 

Exercise and relax. It is a good idea to limber up your body as this also has an effect on your mental state. For example, do some stretching or yoga exercises or warm up by talking a walk before your presentation. 

Sleep and eat. Make sure your body is in balance before your presentation. If you feel rested and eat a good, healthy diet, your body and brain will be well prepared to perform. 

Think about your body posture. Your body affects your mental state, so before you take the stage for your presentation, find a position that makes you feel comfortable and confident (e.g. hold your arms above your head or your hands on your hips). 

Avoid self-prescribed medicine and alcohol. This can aggravate the situation. 

Try these two exercises

(text in videos in Danish)

Exercise: 5+5+5 

  • Breathe calmly and deeply through your nose while counting to 5 
  • Hold your breath while counting to 5 
  • Breathe out through your mouth while counting to 5 

Exercise: Knock down a wall 

With both of your palms, press with all your weight against a solid wall. You will automatically breathe deeply when you let go. 

Mental preparation

To avoid a bad experience, it may be a good idea not only to prepare by studying the academic material, but also to prepare yourself mentally. For example, your mental preparation may include these three areas: 

What are your expectations? 

Instead of allowing expectations of your parents, your teachers, your friends or your fellow students to control your thoughts, try to find out what you expect of yourself. Do you want top marks, no matter what it takes? Do you just want to complete the subject and pass the course? Do you want to learn something from the subject, and are you less concerned about your grade as long as you can take learning with you from the course? 

Whatever your goals and your expectations of yourself, remember that you are just a human being, and that you can draw important lessons from the experience, no matter how it unfolds. 

If you get uncertain or annoyed, tell yourself: "I’m doing the best I can right now" and accept that you cannot control the outcome. Ask yourself "What’s the worst thing that can happen?" And then, "What's the worst thing about that?" 

Be realistic 

If you are nervous because of an exam, your approach to preparing for the exam will play an important role. The aim of your exam preparation is to do the best you can within the available time. How much time do you have, and what is realistic for you to do in this time? Write a list of all the topics you need to read up on before the exam, and make a plan for your exam preparation. This will help you keep track of your progress, so you will have peace of mind and become more efficient. 

Prepare well 

Prepare well for your presentation. Good mastery of the academical material will reduce nervousness. Don’t assume that emotions are always visible: Even if you feel very nervous, other people won’t necessarily notice. 

Practise your presentation, for example with your study group or a group of friends. The more often you practice the presentation, the better your body will know it, and it will feel like a familiar situation when you make your presentation for real. Don't assume that the audience is just waiting for you to make a mistake. Remember that they also know what it’s like to make a presentation. Read more about preparing an oral presentation 

Fake it till you make it 

If you have previously had a bad experience with an oral presentation or an oral exam, it can be difficult to leave it behind you. If you focus on negative experiences, you are telling your brain that something similar can happen again. This can aggravate your nervousness and turn into fear of making oral presentations or even into exam anxiety. 

Instead, try to be aware of what you think of yourself and what you are telling yourself. Replace any negative thoughts with supportive thoughts. Remember that the presentation or exam is not an evaluation of “you”, but rather a context for you to engage in academic dialogue with your audience or with an examiner. If you stand up straight and show an academic interest in your oral presentation, you will ooze positive energy and confidence, and this will rub off on your audience and yourself. 

See also

Cope with exam nerves 

The theme on exam nerves on boostyourstudentlife.au.dk, has advice on how to cope through exam periods by setting goals and following appropriate behavioural patterns.