Are you afraid of anything?
–Grad school peer to me, 2002
For the record, I am not fearless when it comes to presentations. This might surprise some of you who have met me and know that I’m quite clear about being an introvert. Mind you, I spent some time in junior high and high school in the theatre department. The biggest contributors to my level of comfort with talking in front of people, however, were my six years in retail followed by an additional 12 years working at the Walt Disney World Resort. Disney, being an extroverted culture, pretty much doesn’t accept people who cannot talk to people–at least in front-line service positions.
However, the format of the presentation–corporate, public, or otherwise–still creates unbelievable stress for some individuals, including the peer who asked me the question above. Giving a prepared speech is consistently listed among the top ten most stressful situations adults admit to facing. The reasons vary, of course, but usually stem from a combination of shyness, self-consciousness, and previous public embarrassments. I cannot help you with any of that. Nor can I recommend that you spend 17 years in the retail/hospitality business as a remedy. You have to face the music with the experiences and personality you have.
Your Outside Game: Preparation
The best concrete thing you can do with any presentation that is unrelated to your emotional state is simply to prepare yourself thoroughly, which means rehearsal:
- Research and incorporate all of the facts you feel you need to make your point (and no more).
- Write yourself a complete script of what you plan to say.
- Write notes/bullets as a shorter version.
- Read the speech aloud while standing in the quiet of your home, practice with the presentation/remote in hand as well so everything is familiar.
- Repeat for an hour.
- Anticipate the most likely questions, if any, and write/rehearse your responses.
- Pause in your rehearsal, think over the flow, fix the words in your script where they don’t work for you.
- Repeat for another hour. Repeat multiple nights before the presentation if necessary and available.
Beyond practice, there are some specific things you can do to help with the public perception of your presentation.
- Have your notes and presentation slides looking sharp and in order.
- Dress your best, or as best as you would be expected with your intended audience.
- Get plenty of rest the night before your presentation.
- Show up early to make sure your presentation is loaded and that the remote/computer is working correctly.
- Don’t eat/drink chocolate, milk, cheese, peanut butter, or other foods that will make your mouth produce saliva and make your voice “sticky.”
- Have a glass of water before the meeting/talk–if the talk is long enough, bring some water with you so you can use pauses to drink as ways to collect your thoughts.
- Stand up straight. It makes you look better than slouching and also appear more confident.
- Take a deep breath before you begin and keep your breathing and speaking pace regular as opposed to rushing through.
- Wear some lucky talisman if you believe it will help you–your lucky socks?–and put on extra antiperspirant that day (“Never let them see you sweat”).
Rehearsal is not just a matter of memorization–though it will help you get to a point where you can say the words without looking down at your script–it helps get you used to the idea of speaking the presentation aloud.
What Your Audience Is Thinking
That’s all the practical stuff–the actions you need to take to do a merely competent job of sharing your information in a public setting. Part two is about your getting your head right–your “inside game.” Before I dive into what you can do to help yourself, I would like to offer the following bits of insight on your audience:
On the down side:
- Many (or most) of them don’t like giving presentations, either, so they’ll be glad it’s you talking instead of them.
- The likelihood of heckling in a professional/corporate environment is very low.
- If heckling occurs, it’s likely to make the heckler look bad, not you.
- A lot of people don’t want to be in that meeting any longer than necessary.
- People will often pay more attention to your appearance and tone than the words coming out of your mouth.
On the up side:
- If people are in the room for your presentation, they’re interested in what you have to say, which is to say they will be paying attention.
- Most people want you to do well.
- Perhaps the most crucial fact I can stress to you: most of them do not know what you know, so they are looking to you to provide answers–they have to listen to you to get them.
Okay, so now you’ve don’t the practical things, you have some idea of where your audience’s head is at, what do you do with that voice or chorus in your head screaming, “What the heck did I do to deserve this? I’m going to die!” Okay, first, pause. Take another breath. I’ll wait.
- Now, concentrate on the things you have to say. Again, you’re the subject matter expert. At the time of your talk, you know more about your topic than anyone else in the room. That gives you the ability to speak from authority.
- Imagine yourself succeeding. Concentrate on success. This can be done during your rehearsal and during this talk.
- An alternative approach to visualizing success is treating the presentation as a performance. (“But…But…” I know, you don’t like performing. Bear with me.) Think of someone whose presentation skills you admire. Pretend you’re them. Treat this as an acting job. You’re not Trembling Ted (or Tina), the guy who’s afraid to give speeches. You’re Awesome Allen (or Allison) who always gets applause at the end of a presentation. I don’t think I’d go so far as to duplicate vocal or gesture patterns; if the Awesome person you’re imitating might think you’re mocking them. But still, it helps to pay attention to people who you see do well at presentations and imitate things that would work for you. You could even ask that person for tips.
- Practice screwing up. This sounds like an odd thing, but usually on those occasions when I’m in rehearsal mode I’ll find my tongue tripping up in one spot in the presentation over and over. Rather than worry about that situation, I think of a way to make light of the situation, make up a quick, amusing way to recover, and then practice that. People don’t mind you tripping up or having an imperfect presentation if you are able to recover well and keep going. Make the flub “part of the act,” as it were, and you’ll come off as more relaxed than you feel.
- Pretend you’re explaining your topic as you would at the water cooler, in the cafeteria, or out at lunch. The point is to speak the way you would talk about anything else if you weren’t in the artificially awkward “audience” format.
- Incorporate a small bit of humor into your remarks or the presentation slides if you’re comfortable with it and it’s appropriate to your audience.
- If you trip up or lose your place and it wasn’t something you rehearsed, apologize briefly, rewind to a place where you want your flow to go, and restart the flow.
Things I Don’t Advise
Notice I haven’t suggested at any point that you imagine your audience in their underwear, that they’re invisible, or some other trick that takes you off topic. You’re there for a specific purpose–get ‘er done, as they say, and get off the stage.
Don’t go overboard on the humor unless you’re literally doing a standup routine. Again, you’re there to impart information. A couple witty remarks here or there help get your audience to pay attention and keep your tone light.
Note also that I haven’t suggested talking to yourself in a mirror or video recording yourself. Those have both been suggested to me, and they make me worse. They might work for you, so don’t ignore them just because some random introvert on the internet said they didn’t work for him. You need to find ways that put you in your comfort zone, not mine.
Don’t concentrate on not screwing up. Again, concentrate on success. Trying to overcome a negative is almost certain to lead your mind and your mouth to take you exactly to the place you don’t want to be.
One reason we are often uncomfortable giving presentations is simply because we don’t do them very often–which is why practice can be so important if you’re called upon to do it again after a stretch of time. The advice that keeps me balanced and “in the moment” is simply to think of it as talking with your friends about a topic you care about a great deal. You like your friends so your tone is friendly. Your tone is upbeat and variable when you’re discussing a topic you care about. And if your friends haven’t heard of your interest before, you’ve got the opportunity to share new knowledge with them.
Going in with this sort of mindset takes the edge off the often-too-formal reality that is the corporate or conference presentation. And you don’t even have to be fearless while you’re up there. You can even admit to your nervousness with a quick, disarming remark at the front end of your talk, which will humanize you the audience and make them more likely to be encouraging–knowing that you’re uncomfortable and getting up there anyway. Bottom line: people don’t die from making minor flubs on their presentations. Given the right approach, even the most uncomfortable (and believe me, you hadn’t seen uncomfortable until you saw me in front of a classroom full of my peers during my adolescence) can learn to master the basics and “fake it until they make it.”