As a presentation skills coach and trainer, I’ve spent almost twenty years helping clients manage presentation performance anxiety. But it’s only been since Covid-19 reared it’s extremely ugly head that I’ve needed to help my clients manage what I’m calling Zoom Performance Anxiety, or ZPA (and oh, how I wish I could have found a way to make ZAP work instead of ZPA)!
Several presentation coaching and executive presence leadership coaching clients, both new and old, have confessed to a surprising and off-putting fear of speaking while using online platforms like Zoom. They typically experience Zoom Performance Anxiety when they are giving a virtual training or talk and are featured as a speaker. They also slammed by ZPA when they’re participating in a meeting and suddenly asked to unmute and answer a question. Suddenly all eyes are (virtually) upon them and they freeze in front of their camera like a fly facing a flyswatter, stressed out and shut down emotionally and physically.
I’m not really surprised that my clients might be experiencing Zoom Performance Anxiety. After all, though communicating virtually may be both a necessity and a blessing right now, it’s also a weird and somewhat unnatural way to communicate. I mean, there we are, sitting at our desks (or on our bed or at our kitchen table), shooing away our cats, our dogs and, occasionally, our kids, speaking at our monitor to a bunch of thumbnail videos of people who aren’t in the room with us. To make matters worse, the deafening silence we encounter because our audience is typically muted can throw us off even further. And I say “our,” because even though I’m an experienced, certified virtual speaker, offering numerous virtual courses and trainings, I, too, can occasionally get hit with a bit of Zoom Performance Anxiety. I rely on my training as a professional actress (especially my experience with TV and film) to keep me grounded, present and focused on communicating via my computer camera as best as possible with my audience of one or many. I use these same tools to help my clients stay cool, calm, and collected whether they’re speaking live or on a virtual platform.
Here are five ways to beat Zoom Performance Anxiety so you can rock your Zoom calls and virtual presentations:
- Get loose: When we know the camera is on us, our tendency is to get self-conscious. And when we get self-conscious, our bodies react by freezing up (like that fly about to get swatted). It’s near to impossible to communicate effectively in a body that’s shut down. To counteract this tendency, you must, must, must get yourself as physically relaxed as possible before your Zoom session begins. Put some music on, dance around the room. Bring your shoulders to your ears, tense up and then release them. Roll your head around your neck, scrunch up your face like a prune, undulate your hips like a belly dancer (your cats and kids will enjoy this), and shake out your arms and hands. Then, commit to staying loose throughout the meeting by engaging in relaxation activities below camera level– like tensing and releasing your feet, hands and buttocks, and gently rotating your hips while you sit.
- Use your breath to get–and stay–centered: When it comes to being able be present and stay present, your breath is your best friend. Before you begin your Zoom call, and after you’ve loosened up your body, close your eyes, get quiet, and focus on your breath as it goes in and out. If it helps, think the word “calm” or “center” or “peace” at the top of the inhalation. Do this until you feel yourself settling into yourself. Your job is to keep dipping into this well of calm throughout your call or presentation. If you are called on to speak during the meeting, take a deep breath and centering yourself before talking.
- Talk to the cameral like it’s your best friend. The other thing that happens when the camera is on us and we tip into Zoom Performance Anxiety is that we overemphasize what we say or do, in an “I am robot” sort of way. To counteract this, start a solo Zoom call and practice looking into the camera (not at your screen, at your eye-level camera) while you pretend you’re talking to your best friend (or someone you really care about). Pour yourself into the eye of the camera. Talk to your imaginary friend like they’re in the room with you, and you’re just yakking. Remember, cameras are sensitive little buggers, and they pick up little nuances of expression without you having to push or overdo it. The interesting thing is that if you can talk intimately to one person via the camera, your entire audience will feel that you are talking intimately to them (this is true of a live presentation as well). The more you practice this, with or without an audience, the better you’ll get, and the more relaxed you’ll be.
- Invite active interaction: If you can, and the group your speaking to is fairly small, encourage participants to stay unmuted and visible. Then, talk with them, not at them. Ask them questions, in the chat or otherwise. Use their first names, engage with them as much as possible. Invite interaction by breaking down the “fourth wall” (the screen of your monitor or phone) and making an effort to bridge the gap between yourself and your audience. Remember, they’re feeling as weird as you are about the whole virtual thing too. Help them connect with you as often as you can.
- Let go of the need to be perfect: As a recovering perfectionist, I know how hard it is to let go of the need for everything to be flaw-free. I have learned over many years of performing and presenting that striving towards excellence is preferable to needing to be perfect (which a stress-inducing impossibility). Furthermore, since virtual presentations lend themselves to all sort of distractions, technical glitches and weird “nobody’s-actually-in-the-room-with-me-and-I-feel-like-I’m-just-talking-to-myself” moments, you will set yourself up for some serious disappointment if you aim unrealistically for virtual performance perfection. Don’t expect presenting virtually to feel like presenting live. Presenting virtually is going to feel different because it is different. If you’re ok with that, your audience will be too. And the more human and real you are, flaws and all, the more your audience can connect with you—which is, after all, the point.
By practicing these Five suggestions, you’ll not only your reduce your Zoom performance anxiety, you might even begin to see your virtual presentations and meetings as a welcome opportunity to connect genuinely (and even intimately) with your colleagues and clients. Even if you can’t be in the room with them.