An anxious designer’s guide to presentation and facilitation

Paul Blake
Splendid Studio
Published in
4 min readOct 21, 2019
Foot poised to step on toy soldier
Photo credit: James Pond/Unsplashed

There’s been a recurring theme in my design coaching practice: how to overcome anxiety.

Conquering nerves around interviews, project presentations, workshop facilitation and public speaking is an ongoing battle for many of us.

I get it. It took me years to muster the courage to present. Years later, there are still times when fear whacks me squarely between the eyes. Normally just when I least expect it.

I’d be a liar if I said overcoming this was easy. I got to a level of seniority where presenting was a pre-requisite. I hated it but just had to do it. Sleepless nights and cold sweats were the norm.

Over time I got slightly more comfortable. I realised I wasn’t going to be marched out of the building, no one openly ridiculed me, and I didn’t vomit over the audience.

I’d strongly advise you take a slower run-up at things. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you prepare for facing an audience.

1. Practice makes perfect

Find yourself a sympathetic audience. A knowledge-share with teammates is a great place to start. Get comfortable with hearing your voice. Practice making eye contact.

You’ll feel like you’re about to die. You won’t.

Look for opportunities for ‘micro speaking’. Perhaps you could handle the client welcome at a presentation? Immersing yourself in a ‘live’ environment will make presenting feel more natural.

Once you’ve got a little more confidence, look out for smaller meetup groups. You’ll find many of them are wonderfully supportive of new speakers. Fill the front row with your friends, take a deep breath and go for it.

Trust me. You’ll be fine.

2. Know your stuff

A significant source of my anxiety sat at the intersection of subject matter expertise and preparedness.

A low point was a short period where others heavily doctored my client presentations. They stopped being my words. I didn’t believe in them. Presenting them was excruciating.

Have due regard for the input of your team but ultimately deliver in your style and your words. Or not at all.

And while you are learning the ropes stay well away from subjects you’re not fully across. ‘Winging it’ is never a recipe for calm delivery.

3. Find your ‘editors’

Words won’t magically appear. When you run through them in your head, they’ll sound great. The first few times you say them out loud will often be a disaster.

Once I’ve got a rough draft I do one run through to an imaginary audience (or my ever-faithful dog Wren), and then sessions with one of my ‘editors’.

These are a small group of people I trust. They’ll tell me what works. Crucially they’ll also tell me what doesn’t. They help me sharpen my game.

I advise you to do the same. Be clear who’s on your team. Who do you trust to give you objective feedback? Keep them close. Listen, learn, and above all, return the favour.

4. Stay sharp, stay loose

I found false comfort in heavily scripting my presentations, leading to two issues:

  • Constant staring at presenter notes, and
  • Slides with the world’s supply of bullet points

Both of these kill your connection with your audience.

Realising this, I got through important presentations by writing key phrases on Post-it notes and sticking them to the podium.

As I’ve become calmer, I’ve become far less reliant on bullet points. I use key images to drive the storytelling and focus on a conversation with the audience.

5. Find your routine

I’ve discovered methods that energise me and help take away my anxiety. You’ll find routines that work for you. Embrace them.

In the meantime, feel free to steal any of my weird habits.

On my way to public engagements, I listen to music instead of worrying about what might go wrong. I visualise Iggy Pop, Chuck D, or Karen O tearing up the stage. I channel the energy. No-one would mess with Perry Farrell. If they can do it, so can I.

I can guarantee that I won’t be stripping down to my bare torso (or worse) like Iggy, but I feel the excitement of those songs.

Another little secret is I’m also very particular about what I wear. I need to align (to a degree) to the prevailing dress code. I also need to feel mentally and physically comfortable too.

6. Don’t get cocky, kid

When you feel the sense of achievement from successful presentations, don’t forget the steps you took to get there.

It’s easy to become addicted to the feeling of relief and forget the successful routine that delivers it.

Things outside of your control will go wrong from time to time. Without preparation and a plan, it’s difficult to adapt on the fly. That’s when the anxiety will come back to bite hard.

My preparation routine may change, but it never disappears.

In conclusion

Anxiety can be crippling. I’m lucky that it only intruded on a small portion of my life. Even so, it was a major hurdle to overcome, and is a danger that still lurks.

My first step was to recognise it for what it was and to talk about it openly. If you struggle too I’d implore you to do the same.

Good luck, my friends. You’ve got this.



Paul Blake
Splendid Studio

Human-centred designer, coach and public speaker. Partner at Splendid Studio —