Hallowe’en is not the scariest thing in the world -(Hint: Public speaking is)

Public speaking is. It can be really scary. Making a presentation can be hell for some people. Even hearing the word can make people quake in their boots.

I am in the business of hosting, organising, creating and giving presentations and workshops, I get to speak to a lot of people about this topic and know lots of people thoroughly dislike it. So I thought I’d pass on some of what I know. I hope it helps.

Note: This post is not about crafting a workshop, just things you can do to be a better, less nervous presenter.

A lot of people think they suck at giving presentations and are always really nervous and find it incredibly stressful and they wish they could do it better and they didn’t get so stressed about it. The truth is, most people are actually better than they think they are and even if you do give a bad presentation it is like they say in the UK “Today’s news is tomorrows fish and chips paper”. It is soon forgotten.

I think many people see quite a few presentations that could be a whole lot better and people also forget them immediately and move on within minutes as they have so many other things to think about. I’m sure you do that too. It is normal. Know that your fear is unwarranted. However real  and scary it feels at the time.

My initial reflection is that I don’t think it would be a good thing to completely take the stress away, because it can also be a good driver for someone to ensure they try their hardest to succeed. 

For a lot of people though, panic sets it, anxiety levels rise and they freeze. Sound familiar?

How can you get over that?  I don’t think there are any ways to completely get away from that feeling, maybe hypnosis or some NLP training might help. For me, the best way to overcome something, is to become competent at it. Practice it until is becomes second nature or at least less scary. Lean in to it. Learn from it. What exactly is it that scares you? Name that emotion, once you know the beast’s name it is easier to tame.

If the unknown becomes known, it really can be quite straight forward.

You can take away some of the sting by already feeling good about yourself in front of a group of people, if you already know the subject by heart (otherwise you would not have been asked) then it is the physical part of presenting, knowing what to say, how to say it, how to stand, how you come across that is the hard part. Feeling judged or possibly being rejected or ridiculed is a very scary prospect. But it needn’t be. You have to get past that and change your paradigm.

When you learn to drive, you hardly know which pedal does what, there are so many buttons to press, mirrors to look in, rules of the road to learn and there are all these other moving vehicles coming towards to at great speed and people stepping out into the road and you need to remember which order to do things in. Maybe you remember the term MSM? (mirror, signal, manoeuvre) it becomes automatic after a while (or should do).

Anyway the point I am trying to make here is, after a while, driving becomes semi-automatic, you don’t realise your foot goes on the clutch to change gear, you don’t realise that you are signalling already before you make that turn, you don’t even realise that you are glancing in the mirror before you pull out or reverse, you don’t realise that you are going through the gears as you join the motorway, you are concentrating on all the other idiots on the road.

You can do the same with presenting, it takes practice and is about learning the good habits, not the bad ones. Forget thinking that your audience is naked, it doesn’t work. Don’t fidget, rock backwards and forwards, don’t wave your hands all over the place, don’t click your pen, don’t tell jokes. Just tell yourself you are great, it’ll be fine, tell yourself you are a great presenter and that they are lucky to have you there. Be positive. Be brazen, fake it until you make it. Know that you come across better than you think you do, people can be so forgiving. And I bet that some people in the audience are thanking their own god that it is not them up there giving the presentation and so are on your side already, even before you have said the first word.

Positive thoughts are all well and good, but you also need some concrete physical techniques to go with them. What you need to do is learn some techniques to help you look and feel confident in front of your screen/whiteboard, on stage, whatever.

The first thing I would say is to think about the driving analogy. Practice the basics until they become automatic.

What else would I advise?  How do I prepare?

Firstly, it helps to realise that everybody is nervous before giving a presentation, everybody. No exceptions. From Presidents to professional speakers,  from managers to salesmen. If you are not nervous, you are overconfident and can come across as arrogant and insincere. No-one likes a know-it-all. Be authentic. There is no harm in saying you don’t know everything, you can always get back to someone with the information at a later time.

Nervousness is normal. Embrace it. People will understand and look past it. It’s just a fleeting thought that might go through some peoples minds, but then it is gone. 

Secondly, It helps me to remember that silence is golden, by this I mean, don’t be afraid to have moments of silence after important statements. Don’t keep speaking like a machine gun just to fill the gaps. People need time to digest or even translate to themselves if in a multinational environment. Plus if you are speaking in another language than your mother tongue, your way of saying or explaining something may need to be digested. So give people that space to absorb. Take your time. It also gives you time to think about what you are going to say next (win-win). Think Captian James Kirk. (not really)

Thirdly, pace yourself. Get into a rhythm and people will also tune into your rhythm or accent.

Preparation is a must (if you have the luxury). If I have have the time to prepare I make sure I have the first 5 minutes of the presentation learned off by heart. It’s like driving the car the first few times, once you have started driving, you can relax a little and you get into the flow.  The more you can prepare the external things, the more you can concentrate on getting the internal feelings ready.

Things like: Always try to make sure the room or location is set up as you need it, that the technolgy works and you know where it is 😉

I always make sure I have eaten a little, had a good night’s rest (if possible), have plenty of  water (to avoid dry mouth syndrome), have done some breathing exercises and maybe even a power pose or two (yes, they really work. A lot of that can be done in the bathroom or in your car or somewhere out of the public eye).

Practicing your presentation is a must do. Burning those lines into your memory banks can save you going blank halfway through the workshop. Make sure you are as familiar as possible with the material you will speak about. Anticipate questions. 

Try to include a story or two, add a personal anecdote if you can, give people something they can relate to.

Recording your presentation as a practice technique can tell you a lot about how you come across. No need to do a video, although that can help you see how you stand or what your annoying mannerisms may be. Recording yourself can sound really weird, your voice sounds different inside your head. It also shows you how many times you say ‘um’ or ‘aah’ or ‘you know’, or what ever verbal ticks you might have, it can also make evident how you pitch your voice, your tone, your rhythm. Then you can adjust accordingly, or at least be aware of it.

Recording yourself speak has many benefits and you can even use your mobile phone to record yourself (there’s an App for that)  or your computer (Audacity) or a dictaphone if you really want to invest in a tool. One major benefit for me is that it helps make the presentation much more natural sounding. When you write a presentation down it can come across as very stiff and formal. If you read it out loud, you automatically adapt it for speech and ad lib and change things around so they sound better. You can then transcribe that back into the written text so that the next time you practice it it has already been improved upon.

You can also join clubs such as Toastmasters, you can start off going as a guest (someone you know probably knows someone who is a member, ask around), then, if you like it you can sign up and get to practice the art at a higher level. It is not necessary to do this, but if you really want to come across well and it is an important part of your job and you hate it, you can learn to love it by becoming proficient at it. But that can be considered over the top if all you want to do is give the odd presentation.

So, you have written your presentation, made your slides and are waiting outside the room or on the way to present whatever it is you have prepared (btw, always have a back-up with you).

Make sure you are presentable, clothes, hair, teeth etc. Have some water with you (if poss).

Enter the room confidently. Smile, breathe, say hello, look people in the eyes. Be aware of how you are standing, no shrinking, head up, breathe slowly, go over the first lines in your head.

Introduce yourself and thank everybody for coming along.

I always try to start off on an upbeat note, it sets the tone for the rest of the workshop.

Some people apologise for being late or not as prepared as they would like, to give some excuse for a possible bad presentation, DO NOT DO THAT, it lowers peoples expectation already.

Act confident, smile, say hello to anyone you know. Maintain eye contact with people. Be polite. Breathe. 

I always think back to my school days when I would see other children from other classes come into my classroom and ask to borrow something from our teacher or give some information, I never really knew what. I never looked at those kids and thought, “what a loser”. I was always in admiration for them have the courage to do that. I never go to a presentation or workshop these days and expect the person to fail, it doesn’t even enter my head.

What you have to realise is that everybody thinks like that. People don’t want you to fail, they want you to do well. People are far more concerned about learning something or thinking about something entirely different to whoever is up there standing in front of them.

Your presentation can and should be practiced, in front of a mirror, your family, friends or your cats if you wish. Really, just ask a friend or colleague for some feedback.  The more you do, it the less scary it will be. Watch other peoples presentations on You Tube. (Ted Talks?)

You can also practice the way you stand, find something to do with your hands, make sure you are breathing properly, make sure you speak at a natural speed, not too loud, no shouting allowed, no whispering either. If you have a quiet voice, it is not a major issue so long as everyone can hear you. Maybe you could use a microphone if that is the case.

Sometimes having a naturally quiet voice can be an asset, if the topic is good, it can make people listen to you more intensely. It can be theatrical to use quietness as part of the presentation, but of course projection is the key, everybody has to hear you or the message is lost. You see, people really do want to hear what you have to say. Never think that what you are saying is already known, sometimes you can clarify something for someone that hadn’t quite grasped that nugget of information. Or they may not have heard something in that context before. Believe you are useful and you will be.

You also need to connect with the audience. Try to maintain eye contact for at least two to three seconds per person, or long enough to complete a full phrase or sentence. Effective eye communication is the most important nonverbal skill in a speaker’s toolbox.

If I am feeling a little unsteady or nervous, I move towards the audience, I get brazen, if someone asks a question, answer or ask them to wait until the end so you don’t lose your flow. You are boss whilst on the floor. Take charge.

To recap:

  1. Be prepared – know your stuff
  2. Practice – practice – practice (posture, voice and content)
  3. Use the nervous energy to boost your confidence
  4. Be bold – fake it until you make it
  5. Realise everyone is rooting for you, nobody wants you to fail
  6. Ask questions, put the audience on the other foot
  7. Make eye contact

Did that help? What else would help you? maybe I am missing something that could help you. Let me know. 

With love

Andy

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