The Root Cause of Presentation Anxiety

Read Time: 6 Minutes

I've had many great discussions over the last few years about why presenting and public speaking cause such a massive spike in anxiety in most people. 

Both what the root cause of this fear is and also a solution or a workaround to it.

Today's post was inspired by a conversation I had 2 weeks ago with a friend of mine who had anxiety around speaking at her industry’s annual conference. In it, I want to share my perspective of why we get nervous when presenting and touch lightly on what we can do about it. (more detail in a later post)

I'll pull from my knowledge of the mind, and evolutionary psychology to answer this as best I know how. I think my perspective on this is useful to you is because I haven't seen other people using these concepts in public speaking and they work in practice very successfully. 

My central claim in this post is that the root of presentation anxiety is our innate fear of rejection paired with a learned association between presenting and pain. When you look at this issue that perspective it makes perfect sense why most of us are anxious around presenting, we grow up in an imperfect environment which doesn’t arm us with the tools to handle rejection and we come programmed to fear rejection.

Side note: helicopter parenting and participant awards are some of the big reasons why millennials and younger people are so oversensitive to rejection and adversity and as a result have high anxiety rates.

From this key insight about the root of presentation anxiety, the solution becomes more apparent: to learn how to re frame your attitude toward rejection and failure while using your body language to manage the acute signs of stress that will invariably come up when you step up to speak as a result of your innate fear. 

Why change your body language? because the way you hold your body changes your mood. More on that in future posts but if you don’t believe me I challenge you to curl up in a ball for 10 minutes and try to stay happy or to smile dumbly for 10 minutes for no reason without your mood changing along with it.

or go read this study.

So here is a mental attitude and a physical attitude to practice as a temporary workaround to presentation anxiety. 

The Mindset to Beat Presentation Anxiety

We don't live in tribes anymore

The root cause of rejection comes from tens of thousands of years of mental evolution from living in tribes of about 150 people. In a setting like this, being rejected in front of your peers meant potential ostracism and death. One thing I have found massively comforting when stepping onstage is mentally feeling grateful that my top 5 people in my life are still going to accept me no matter what happens during this presentation.

It is a weird idea, but for me and for many who I have used it, the awareness that bombing this presentation wouldn’t mean total social ostracism takes the sting out of failure mentally.

What is the worst thing that can happen?

One tool which I teach everyone who I meet about how to deal with potential adversity is called negative visualization. This is an old exercise borrowed fro the stoic philosophers. In this exercise you ask yourself two questions:

  1. What is worst possible outcome
  2. How would I recover if this happened?

By doing this with your presentations mentally before you step onstage you will find that the answer to the first question is usually that nothing truly terrible will happen and the answer to the second question is that you could easily recover from just about any failure. 

Very comforting. 

What value are you offering your audience?

 If you can clearly define why your presentation has so much value for your audience then you can very easily see that there is nothing to fear, it is your moral obligation to present well. this might not seem applicable to something like a sales presentation, but it is. When you firmly believe that your product or service will make the prospects life better and business more successful you feel like not selling well would be immoral.

This tool came out of one of my worst presentations ever, the first 10 minutes I was on stage I was bombing! But then in a moment I said to myself “You do not have the right to fail this presentation and leave these people unhappy.” And from that day on this has been my attitude toward all presentation stress and it has worked like a charm!

The Body Language to Beat Presentation Anxiety

Practice outlandishly open posture

A big open posture has been shown to increase testosterone, and decrease the stress hormone cortisol. the reason for this is that an open posture shows security. it shows that we are not worried about attack. An evolutionary leftover from our ancestors dangerous times when standing with open body language meant potentially getting stabbed with a spear. Wacky but true, this is the reason behind the reason certain body language conveys a sense of safety to the mind. 

The evolutionary significance of our gestures has shaped our currently shared body language.


Speak Louder and more resonantly

Speaking to the back of the room (so loud you can hear your voice echo off of the walls) means that you will need to breathe deep and speak with more resonance, both of which stimulate a nerve called the vagus. When the vagus nerve is stimulated by your voice it sends messages to your brain which say you are safe.  

The reason behind the voice signaling safety is again our evolutionary heritage. Our ancestors learned to shut up when times were dangerous for fear of being eaten by predators or stabbed by hostile tribes. So when you speak louder your brain reads this as safety from attack.

Focus on your feet and plant

Another leftover from our evolutionary predecessors is that the metaphor of stability came out of literal physical stability. what that means is that our legs both show and shape how we feel when it comes to security. Standing with locked legs makes us feel unstable, tapping our foot makes us feel impatient and nervous because it is a micro version of the feelings we get when we ran away from a predator.

Pacing is a sign of nerves as is pointing a toe toward an exit, it shows that we want to walk out the exit.

As a way to use the legs to increase your feeling of safety and security onstage, walk to where you will speak, plant yourself, bend your knees slightly and bring your awareness into your feet. A weird idea but I promise it will make you feel more stable emotionally because it makes you feel more stable physically. 

That is my presentation anxiety workaround. As a workaround it is not a comprehensive solution but I think that if you use these 6 techniques regularly, you will be able to beat most of the nerves that you felt when presenting. The mental techniques get you thinking thoughts that will overcome your learned fear of presentation and the body language tips that I have included will help you send signals of safety to your brain to fight acute nerves. 


The body language which signals safety to the brain is the body language that most exposes us to attack

So, go out and try these techniques to manage nerves and let me know below; Which technique helped your presentation anxiety and stress most? 

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