What does a communication skills trainer say to a professional who is so terrified of the prospect of giving a presentation – a requirement of her job, no less – that he or she can’t even be persuaded to give it a go in the safe space of the training room?
This was the problem that confronted me recently when not one but two participants in my group training session were happy to listen to my words of wisdom on the principles of effective presenting but were adamant that they could not get up on their hind legs and put theory into practice.
Just do it! (with apologies to Nike)
At the end of the session, one of these people came up to me and asked me how she could get over her fear. I told her there was only one way: just do it. Then do it again…and again…and again, until experience triumphs over fear.
Of course, there are other important ways to build confidence at the same time, such as being well prepared, making sure all the tech works, practising umpteen times in front of the mirror etc, and I’ll get on to those. But giving your first presentation and finding you are still in one piece at the end of it is the crucial rite of passage.
I will never forget my own first presentation many years ago. I was launching a new maternity charity in the prestigious environs of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, before an eminent audience of experts from all over the UK. To say I was petrified is an understatement. The first thing I did that morning was throw up: I didn’t see how I could possibly survive the ordeal.
But I was the founder of that charity and there was no way out. So, I got up on stage and delivered the presentation – and it was okay. Actually, it was better than okay. I didn’t stutter, lose my voice or forget my words. I didn’t trip over the mic wires or mix up my prompt cards (this was pre-PowerPoint). As far as I could tell, no one walked out or fell asleep. In fact, my speech was well received, and I floated on a cloud of approbation for the rest of that day.
You still need that edge of nervous energy
I went on to give many more presentations in that role – because my job required me to convince often sceptical audience of the charity’s raison d’etre. In my current role I give regular presentations on how to be a great presenter – no pressure there, then! And I am now as comfortable as it is possible to be with the whole business of presenting without sacrificing that edge of nervous energy that is needed to power a performance.
Showing up, as I indicated earlier, is not enough in itself. When you analyse what it is that presenters feel nervous about in anticipation of the event, most of the fear centres on ‘things that could go wrong’. So here are my tips for ensuring that none of those nightmare scenarios come to pass. It comes down to three ‘P’s’: prepare, practise, patrol.
This is the stage where you create your presentation, defining your purpose and your messaging in relation to your audience, then designing slides that support your narrative. It is where you work out how you want to interact with your slides so that they support you rather than the other way round. It is also where you anticipate all questions and objections that could come up in the Q&A period and plan how you will address them, ideally with reference back to your own key messages. Once you are fully prepped, it is time to…
This is where you rehearse the presentation in front of a mirror, the cat, your partner or a video camera. Practice is vital for three reasons:
- To translate written words into speech. Spoken language tends to be simpler and less formal than its written equivalent and you need to translate what you have written down into words that sound natural coming out of your mouth;
- To achieve a level of fluency with what you want to say without actually memorising a script – the latter being a risky strategy because you will sound fake and run the risk of drying up if you forget your lines;
- To check that you are not in danger of overrunning your allotted time.
All this practice should take place in the few days leading up to the ‘gig’. On the day itself it is time to:
Get to the venue well ahead of time – I usually allow at least 45 minutes at an unfamiliar venue. Things to check at this stage boil down to a further 3 Ps:
- Paraphernalia: Will your laptop connect with the projector? Does the sound system work? Is the mic fixed or roving? Will you control the slides or is an AV team in charge? Do you want the lights on or off?
- Presenting position: Is there a podium set up? Do you want to speak from a podium or would you prefer to roam free? Are you positioned on the correct side of the screen (I always like the screen to be on my right because it is natural to me to gesture towards it with my right hand)? Is there a handy table for notes, water and any props you may want to use?
- Process: Will you be introduced or do you have to introduce yourself? Are you expected to take questions during the presentation or save them until afterwards? Will you or someone else be chairing the Q&A? Will questions come from the floor or via notes?
If you have been diligent with your 3 Ps you will have overcome all the obstacles to success that are within your control. And that knowledge alone should give you the confidence you need to walk out on that stage and claim it for yourself.
Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash
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