Learn to Embrace Your Butterflies

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Karen Hough

Pre-Presentation Nerves Aren’t a Bad Thing
Everybody gets nervous. If you feel ill and nervous, have an upset stomach, a dry mouth, or shaking hands, you may feel at the mercy of these terrible stress reactions.

The truth is, nerves are a great bad thing! They are the body’s way of telling you that you care, that this is important. Adrenaline kicks in, energy flows through you, and your body is ready for anything. The key is to think of your reactions as good—to recognize them when they appear and use the excess energy. For example, when I’m nervous, my neck gets hot and turns a little red. Rather than sensing that heat and getting worried, I’ve trained myself to think, “Oh, there goes my neck again. It’s about three minutes before I go on, so this is good. I’m going to take that extra energy and force it out through my smile.” An awareness like this allows you to draw something from your nerves rather than be enslaved by them. Frame it this way: “I understand that I’ll always have butterflies in my stomach. Now I can help them fly in formation.”

Your Breath Is Your Secret Weapon
Most people ignore breathing. They feel too silly or self-conscious to engage in breathing techniques that will help them. If you think deep breathing and relaxation techniques are only for yoga pros, well, you’re flat out wrong. Understanding your breath and how it can support your presentation and presence is a key underpinning of power. How do you think actors sound so commanding and dancers look as though the most demanding sequence is a snap? It’s because part of their mastery is breathing and using that oxygen to fuel their performances.

When people get nervous, they start to breathe in a quick, shallow way that only reaches their neck. Then they sound weak, look terrified, and can’t manage their shaking hands. As a matter of fact, I once watched a major executive pass out on stage—the dude fell like a tree. He did just what your sixth-grade choir instructor warned you not to do—he locked his knees and forgot to breathe!

Whenever you encounter an unusual situation, your body reacts. You may feel all sorts of physical responses to the fear and uncertainty of situations, such as interviews, presentations, and unexpected moments when you’re put on the spot. A racing heart, dry mouth, blanking, shaking or clammy hands—these are all ways that your body responds to the sudden flood of chemicals to your brain. Your body is reacting to a primal influx of cortisol and other stress chemicals that urges you to fight or flee the unknown. And since running away isn’t really a good solution to modern-day stress, let’s explore some techniques to manage it.

The number one, most important technique to manage nerves is breathing. One of the first things we lose in stressful situations is oxygen. The tricky part is that we don’t recognize the loss—we begin to breathe rapidly and shallowly, we hold our breath involuntarily, and suddenly we’re close to passing out. Starting to breathe deeply well before you step into an uncomfortable situation is absolutely essential. Find your own breathing technique that can calm your physical reactions and get accustomed to using it. Even seasoned presenters, salespeople, and executives know that when they manage their breathing, they feel calmer and can cope better.

Dr. Andrew Weil suggests an excellent breathing technique based on a specific ratio: 4:7:8. Breathe in through your nose to a count of four. Hold that breath for a count of seven. Release the breath through your mouth with a whooshing noise to a count of eight. By focusing and repeating this exercise, you actually trick your nervous system into calming down.1

I’ve used this technique many times to calm myself in the car on my way to an important meeting. I’ve used it right before stepping on stage. I even used it once when I left an argument. In each of these situations, my mind was racing and my body was reacting. By bringing oxygen into my body and giving my brain a calming ratio to focus on, I became myself and calmed down enough to think and deal. People often recommend counting to ten before you say something you might regret, but I would suggest breathing to ten.

After thousands of presentations, shows, performances, and workshops in my various careers, I’m so happy when the butterflies show up before each one. It’s confirmation that I still care—that no matter who the audience is, my body is getting nervous and my adrenaline is pumping in anticipation.

1 Andrew Weil, “Breathing: Three Exercises,” http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART00521/three-breathing-exercises.html

© 2014 by Karen Hough and ImprovEdge LLC. All rights reserved. Excerpted and adapted from Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes, and Win Them Over (Berrett-Koehler 2014). Used with permission. http://www.bkconnection.com/ProdDetails.asp?ID=9781626560475&PG=1&Type=BL&PCS=BKP

If you want to learn more about presentation skills, consider these AMA seminars: 
Strategies for Developing Effective Presentation Skills 

Effective Executive Speaking

About the Author(s)

Karen Hough is founder of ImprovEdge, an Amazon #1 bestselling author, and a contributor to the Huffington Post and Inc.com. Her company won the silver Stevie International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year, and she is the author of Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes, and Win Them Over (Berrett-Koehler 2014).