Presentation Skills: Social Anxiety and Presenting

According to Wikipedia, social anxiety is “a discomfort or a fear when a person is in social interactions that involve a concern about being judged or evaluated by others.”

I think we’ve all experienced social anxiety at some point in our lives. Most of us had some degree of self-consciousness or shyness when we were young. Or certain circumstances have inspired the experience: We’re sitting down for an important job interview, or we’re walking into a networking event filled with people we’ve never met before, or we’re getting up to speak in front of a room full of decision-makers whose job it is of assessing me.

It’s this last circumstance that most commonly brings about feelings of anxiety. Experts believe as many as 75% of Americans have some level of discomfort around public speaking. And most of these 75% feel enough anxiety to avoid the challenge of presenting altogether.

This is a shame, because presenting is a hugely valuable activity for anyone interested in their career. People who can present themselves are more visible to their peers, more known, more readily hirable, and better thought of by employers because they’re capable of representing their organization positively to the public.

Being someone who suffered a fair amount of social anxiety as a young person and got past it through solid guidance and a lot of practice, I want to share five suggestions for keeping anxiety from getting in your way so that you can present yourself and move yourself forward for the rest of your life.

1) Redefine “presenting yourself” as something you’re doing whenever you’re around anyone. This might seem counterintuitive, because if you’re nervous about presenting yourself and you entertain the idea that maybe you’re presenting yourself all the time, that idea might shut you down perpetually. But actually the opposite is true. You’re going to reduce the anxiety of the previously “important” moments by treating all of your moments as important. Basically, you’re practicing presenting all the time. Start thinking of every interaction with every cashier, every waitress, every stranger on the street as a performance. See if you can elicit some degree of positive response in that other person, even if your interaction with them can be measured in seconds.

2) Start really looking at the people you’re talking to, and focusing on them. I don’t necessarily mean staring at them, and I don’t mean making them feel like they’re under a microscope. But really *see* them. The more you focus on the people you’re talking to, the more you take the attention off of yourself, and the better you’ll show up.

3) Look for useful feedback from your audience, but don’t sweat it if you don’t get it. Connecting with your audience is absolutely vital. It sets you up as a leader of the presentation. Even more importantly, it can provide you with some potentially very useful information about how you’re landing with the people you’re talking to: You can see people nod in understanding and smile in approval. You can see it when it’s present, and it’s helpful when it is. But when you just get blank stares or closed eyes or yawns or distracted looks, don’t let it *mean* anything. Don’t conclude there’s a problem. There are an infinite number of reasons why these things show up on people’s faces, and you don’t need to worry about each and every one of them.

4) Don’t fight the anxiety, don’t hate yourself for it, just notice it. If you fight it, you’ll likely make it worse. And if you hate yourself for it, you’ll project negativity. But if you notice it, you’re no longer judging yourself for having it, you’re just making note of it. It’s kind of like noticing that you have clothes on, or that you’re breathing. Acknowledging something and allowing it to be radically reduces it’s ability to stand in our way, and radically increases our ability to work with it.

5) Don’t just notice the anxiety, appreciate it. We’ve worked with stage actors who have told us that they *need* their stage fright to project stage presence. Their anxiety is their fuel — it powers their performance. If you can get to the point where you are worried about *not* having anxiety, you’ve gotten to a truly awesome place.

What do you think of all this? What questions do you have about these tips? What tips of your own do you have? Share your thoughts below! And if you’re interested in further strengthening the ability to present yourself, join us at Winning Presence For Make-or-Break Moments on Thursday, Feb 27.



  1. Cathy Allen on February 20, 2014 at 7:55 am

    Thanks for these tips. I will be presenting in April to a professional group. I will ‘practice’ #s 1 and 2 between now and then. They should help me get prepared.

    • Pete Machalek on February 20, 2014 at 8:50 pm

      Great idea, Cathy! Tell us more about this presentation of yours. And please let us know how it goes!

  2. Dean Hyers on February 20, 2014 at 10:15 am

    I love those tips! First, I’m calling out a neat phrase you offered, then one addition:

    1) Your Neat Phrase: “Don’t sweat it if you don’t get it.” Sounds like your next speech title, Pete. There’s a lot to harvest in that statement.

    2) My addition, as a speaker who’s made the journey as well from consistent stage fright to a more reliable stage presence, I too appreciate my fear because it gives me the extra energy to express myself fully. AND, when leave the wings to address the audience, I RELOCATE my appreciation on the audience. I appreciate my fear up to the moment that I step out on the stage, then I appreciate THEM, because I need my attention off of me at that point. So everything you said, plus shift from appreciating your fear to appreciating the human people as you start talking.

    • Pete Machalek on February 20, 2014 at 8:50 pm

      Great addition, Dean!

    • Colleen Supple on February 28, 2014 at 12:36 pm

      I love this comment Dean, and #5 on your list Pete. It makes me think that my anxiety is not something bad but actually a gift of energy that I can present to my audience.
      As a distance runner and coach of beginning runners, I truly value “pre-race jitters” and often say that they shave off 10 seconds per mile in a race. I believe in running with the grain of our heartbeats rather than against that grain, and this is a broader lesson I can apply in my life and my career. Thanks for helping me put it into words!

  3. Cindy Conley on February 20, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Very helpful tips! Thank you. A question arose as I read your blog: do you have advice about how to “present myself” in all my interactions in a way that is energetically sustainable and authentic? As an introvert, the thought of constant presentation sounds like it could be tiring over the long-term. Any thoughts?

    • Pete Machalek on February 20, 2014 at 8:59 pm

      Great question, Cindy! I have three thoughts for you:

      1) Present yourself as someone who wants to help the people you’re talking to. This shifts your attention off of yourself and onto THEM, and this allows you to just be in the interaction FOR them. It’s exhausting when your attention is on yourself and you’re desperately trying to figure out what to say to be interesting or entertaining. It’s actually quite re-energizing when you’re attention is on them and you’re figuring out what to say to make a difference for them.

      2) Give yourself permission to opt out. As someone who actively resists doing anything when I *should* do it, I recognize that each interaction represents a choice for me: Do I want to go ahead and give it a shot, or do I want to skip this one? When I recognize this choice, I almost always opt in.

      3) Confession time: One of my favorite things in the world is people valuing something I have to to offer. So if I present things to people that are easy for them to value, they get something from me, and I get something right back — their listening and their appreciation. It’s a total win-win, and I end up with at least as much as energy as I started out with. If you’re at all like this (and not everybody is), I think it’ll work that way for you too.

      • Cindy Conley on March 6, 2014 at 2:37 pm

        Great insights. Thank you for those additional distinctions – very useful and clarifying.

  4. Ric Hinkie on February 21, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    I call these Butterfly moments in my new book fast Forward Your Career. Think of both the nervous “butterflies” most people think of as negative, but think also of the new person you will be when you have overcome the challenge…a delightful new creature! The more butterfly moments. the more beautiful and robust the next butterfly is. As a high school junior I found myself leading tours of the original Tyrone Guthrie theater. World renowned actors helped me overcome my fears by telling me stories of their on stage gaffs. Every night my team and I ushered 1437 people to their seats. Some with zippers at half mast, toilet paper stuck to their shoes and skirts tucked into panty house in the back. I found myself identifying with their embarrassment. Then I realized we are all imperfect, just human beings doing our best. The audience and the presenter are a team, all wanting to succeed. Always, remember that your audience is nervous for you and wants you to succeed.

    Pete and Dean are real pros, you are in the right place.

    • Pete Machalek on February 21, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      I love this sentiment, Ric! “The audience and the presenter are a team, all wanting to succeed.” That’s really brilliant. The presenter wants to make a difference for the audience, and the audience wants the presenter to make a difference for them. So true!

  5. Samantha Sawyer on February 28, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Great tips! As a parent coach who spoke to a group of parents and educators last night I confirm the truth of redirecting my attention from myself to them as a huge help. In line with #1 I take the opportunity to “present” in daily interactions by using my transition years and results driven language to grow extra comfortable with my content and structure.

  6. […] turns that around with some great techniques for confidence and audience connection, however the simple question of what to say first is what I want to resolve for you […]

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