Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Andrew Keeler L2, USA

Andrew Keeler L2, USA

Hi, I’m Andrew Keel– … Andrew, and, my presentation, sorry, I’m, um, going to talk about… something that I should know the name of that’s called… oh yeah, “Stage Fright.”

Let’s try this again.

Hi!  I’m Andrew Keeler, I’m an L2 based out of Knoxville, TN, and today I’m going to talk about dealing with performance anxiety as a presenter at a judge conference.  

Performance anxiety, like any kind of anxiety, is a fear response.  Commonly referred to as ‘stage fright’, performance anxiety is a fear that arises in relation to presenting, speaking, or otherwise performing in front of an audience.  Like all fear responses, the anxiety that a presenter feels may be justified to some degree.  Most people are afraid of looking foolish in front of others; it’s trivially easy to imagine ways to mess up a presentation and have nowhere to hide when all eyes are on you.  There are, after all, millions of ways to mess up a presentation and Only One Way to execute it perfectly.

In small doses, performance anxiety is a motivator to practice and perfect a presentation so that you, as the presenter, do a good job presenting. Performance anxiety becomes a problem when that fear response grows out of proportion to the presentation, and becomes paralyzing and debilitating instead of motivating.  At this point, the performance anxiety starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as you now spend more time rehearsing ways to make a mistake than thinking about doing things correctly.  Unfortunately,  this only makes you more likely to actually make a mistake during a presentation.

So how do we go about getting over performance anxiety to give a solid presentation?

Caution:  These tips alone will not produce a stellar presentation.  In some cases they may appear to contradict “best practices” for giving presentations.  My goal here is to give advice to help mitigate excessive performance anxiety and give a good presentation in a relaxed and confident manner – not help you to write the ‘most interesting presentation in the world.’  Once you’ve gained confidence as a presenter you can focus on enhancing the presentation content.

Become an Expert

Even if nothing else in this article works and your knees are knocking together so badly that your audience joins you in what they imagine to be an interpretive dance, you can still compensate for some performance anxiety by knowing what you are talking about better than everyone else.

My day job is in physics research as a graduate student.  In a research group, everyone in the group focuses on different parts of the same project because the projects are too big for one person to do everything.  The person who writes and maintains the analysis software is different from the person who designs the physical setup for our experiment, who is different from the person who works on developing new detectors for the experiment, who is different from the person who runs simulations, who is different from the person who handles the administrative tasks for the experiment, etc.  We meet maybe once per week as a whole group to update everyone else on where we are in our part of the project, and in that time, I am the only person who knows what I’ve been up to and what the status is on my part of the project.  When I’m presenting my status, no one can tell me I’m wrong because I’m the only one who knows what has actually been happening.  There may be discussion about whether something similar has come up before, or where to go from here, but even the head researcher who has been doing things like this for 30 years is generally less of an expert on my particular part of the project than I, the lowliest student in the group, am.

So how does this apply to judging?  Doesn’t every judge more experienced than me know pretty much everything there is to know about judging?

Of course not.  Magic is a giant, complex game, and being a judge only adds to the complexity.  Just as there are certainly areas where you are weak as a judge, there are areas where other judges are weak as well, even if everyone there is at the same judge level.  Your job, as the presenter, is to bolster your presentation by knowing absolutely everything there is to know about Investigations, or Two-Headed Giant, or Modern, or Layers, or hosting Judge Classes.  

As an aside, don’t be afraid to mention why you are qualified to talk about your topic within your presentation.  Your audience may not think much of it, but it can certainly help your confidence in your presentation by establishing that you do actually know what you’re talking about.

Recognize that people are interested in what you have to say

I mentioned above that all judges have strengths and weaknesses. Likely, the areas where other judges are weak are different from the areas where you are weak.  So, you presenting on a topic you are familiar with is going to be quite interesting to other judges who are not as familiar with that topic.  In fact, when you’re standing up there looking at the sea of faces, think about the fact that all of the people in those seats chose your presentation over whatever else they could have been doing right now.  You don’t need to convince them that your topic is an interesting one, because your audience already believes that it is.  

For example, consider this article.  It is literally black text on a white background, a couple pictures further down as illustrations.  It could not be less bland or boring. Yet in spite of how boring and bland the presentation is, I’ll bet most readers think this is a pretty good article.  You, dear Reader, have gone almost half-way through a visually uninteresting article with a minimum of clever humor, and I firmly believe you probably didn’t even notice until I called attention to it just now. The reason for this is that you are interested in what I have to say, so I don’t need to spend time worrying about how to convince you to read what I wrote.  

Informative presentations select their own audiences.  As a presenter and expert, most of your audience will be there because they think you have some information to give them that they want to know.  They primarily want to be informed, not entertained.  There may be a small portion of your audience that is only there so they can get judge foils at the end, but it’s unlikely that even clever visuals will convince them to be interested in your presentation.  For the vast majority of your audience, and certainly for the part you are most interested in reaching, the information you are presenting is the thing they are most interested in, which by default makes your presentation interesting.

Of course, a presentation can be made much more visually appealing than black text on a white background, but you shouldn’t feel the need to use a slick presentation to convince your audience to be interested in your topic, because most of them would be somewhere else if they really weren’t interested in it.

Prepare for Failure

Earlier I said that there’s only one way to do things right, and millions of ways to look foolish.  I lied.  As it turns out, no presentation goes flawlessly.  This is such a truism that it hardly seems worth mentioning, but closely related to it is the lesser-acknowledged fact that things don’t need to go flawlessly.  Audiences are much more forgiving of little mistakes than presenters are, particularly because the audience has no way of knowing if you made a mistake in the first place.  

For example, those “umm…”s, “ahh…”s, and awkward pauses?  That’s how people naturally speak, and so everyone else automatically filters out some of those ‘dis-fluencies.’  Pausing at an appropriate frequency also helps the audience to better take in the information that you’re presenting, so not pausing at all can actually give a more negative impression by making a presentation seem too hard to follow.  Only when there’s an excessive amount of pausing and awkward vocalizations do people start to notice and react negatively.  As a rule, using more than one interrupter per sentence is excessive, though you should use fewer if you are speaking more quickly, as the contrast between the content and the interrupter is more jarring.  I can assure you that your audience will be a lot more forgiving of those little things than you likely are.  

Besides, there’s no reason you can’t plan for what to do in case something does go wrong.   If you miss a talking point, how will you communicate that information to your audience?  What’s your plan to recover if a joke falls flat?  How will you keep the audience engaged if the screen falls over or the projector breaks?  Should you practice improvisation in case something unpredictable happens?  Do you need a backup plan in case you can no longer rely on your visuals?  These are all questions that you can, and should, answer ahead of time and then include in your practicing, so that you don’t have to worry about them during your presentation.  Speaking of practicing…


This one should go without saying, but there’s still a temptation to skimp on this part. No amount of practice can adequately prepare you for being in front of a live audience in terms of eliminating anxiety, but that practice will translate into fewer mistakes during the presentation. That’s because you re-tread that well-worn neural path that you’ve made by giving the same presentation over and over again, so your brain is comfortable because it knows what comes next in the presentation. Writing notes is a good way to reinforce this, as the act of writing forces your brain to rehearse what you are writing and gives you prompts that you can refer to during the presentation.

Another small thing you can do to help here is to have ‘scripts’ that you employ when you speak. A ‘script’ in this case is a short sentence or two that you can re-use with only slight tweaks for different settings. Have you ever noticed that fast food workers tend to always say the same things when they’re greeting customers? “Hi, welcome to [place], how may I help you?” Every customer gets the exact same scripted introduction, and they never seem to notice or care, because they are interested in what’s being said. Scripts save the presenter a lot of mental energy, since they can be done pretty much on autopilot and can still create a good impression with the audience.

Here’s a couple of other scripts that readers may recognize:

        1) Judgecast

“Hello and welcome to Judgecast.  This is episode number [number].  My name is CJ Schrader and with me, as always, my two [adjective, usually a pun] co-hosts.  First up we have Jess Dunks (Hi, this is Jess) and Brian Prillaman…”

2) One that I use a lot as a judge

Hi! My name is Andrew Keeler, I’m an L2 based in Knoxville, TN, and [what I’m doing talking to you today].

3) One that you probably use as a judge

“You have an [number]-minute time extension, and remember to play more carefully in the future.”

Pay attention to your body

Looking cheesy has never felt so good.
Looking cheesy has never felt so good.

Did you know that certain postures can make you feel more relaxed and in control?  Psychological studies have shown that people who adopt postures that take up lots of space feel more powerful and confident while they do so, and that people whose muscles are tense tend to feel more stressed.  A great way to calm yourself down before a presentation is to roll your shoulders back and down into a more relaxed position, opening up your chest to improve airflow and make yourself look bigger.  This can help you to both relax and make yourself feel more confident.

The other aspect of this falls into self-care.  Be sure you are eating right and drinking enough water.  Be sure you get enough sleep the night before.  If you feel under-prepared, you’ll present as under-prepared.  Taking care of yourself will give you the physical resources of a well-prepared presenter, allowing you to present as a well-prepared presenter.

Recognize feedback for what it is

The judges that attend judge conferences generally have two goals (aside from shiny foils, of course).  Judges at conferences want to support the judge community as a whole and also grow as individual judges.  Hopefully you as a presenter also have these goals.  Feedback should be an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as a presenter, which should present an opportunity to grow as a judge, a presenter, and a person.  Feedback shouldn’t be a means for “putting you back in your place”, or for establishing how much more an audience member knows about your topic than you do, and quite honestly almost no one uses it that way anyway.

In short, try to take your feedback to heart as honest efforts to point out areas of strength and weakness, rather than seeing feedback as competition or an attack.  If you have a tendency to feel attacked through criticism, try to avoid immediately rebutting feedback from others, especially if the feedback is given face-to-face.  Instead weigh the evidence in favor of your feeling attacked (things like, “The criticism wasn’t fair because X, Y, and Z”) against evidence that might support the criticism (“The criticism was justified because A, B, and C”) to come to a more balanced conclusion about the feedback.  You might still conclude that the feedback was unfair, but you’ve done your due diligence to see things from the reviewer’s perspective and learn anything productive you could from the unhelpful feedback.  This helps protect you, both from coming across as unnecessarily defensive and from failing to improve your presentations because you don’t take honest feedback to heart.


By adopting some of these strategies, you’ll be able to present more confidently and mitigate some of the anxiety that you feel before and during a presentation, lessening the negative impact that fear has on your presentation.  These methods for dealing with performance anxiety aren’t silver bullets that will cause you to present without feeling anxious.  Neither are these techniques for giving stellar presentations.  Hopefully these techniques will allow you to take your focus off of your knocking knees and onto the presentation so that you can give a solid, informative, and interesting talk without fear of an interpretive dance breaking out.


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