Oh, God. You’ve been asked to do a presentation, and you can’t really say no (although that’s what you’re screaming in your head, isn’t it?) because your boss has already moved onto the next point on the agenda. You want to be able to present like a professional.
Fear of public speaking is incredibly common. In fact, experts estimate around 75% of all people get anxious when they’re asked to speak in front of others. Some particularly melodramatic studies have found that most people fear speaking in public more than they fear death. So, you’re not alone.
The problem is, avoiding that presentation could have some pretty disastrous effects on your life, career goals and other areas. You might stop being overlooked for that promotion if only you could get past the anxiety that’s stopping you from presenting like the professional we all know you are.
The best way to get over crippling fear, in my experience, is a little preparation.
Here’s some advice that might help next time you’re given the unenviable task of commanding your colleagues’ attention at your departmental pow-wow.
Developing the ‘X Factor’
All the world’s a stage – but how much presence you do have on it?
Stage presence is essentially your ability to get and keep your audience’s attention. Energy and charisma play a part, but you don’t have to loudly bounce around the stage in order to develop presence. In fact, someone quiet and intense can be just as engaging.
It’s all about keeping an eye on your energy level. You’ll need to add a pinch more of the key ingredients—animation, enthusiasm, and volume. It makes sense to warm up your voice and body before you star—so you can use them at a slightly higher level than you’re used to without getting tired.
Project your voice instead of shouting, and crank up your body language and animated movements (without becoming a cartoon). And, difficult though it seems, appearing relaxed and comfortable can make a world of difference. Breathe deeply and slowly, and smile.
Smiling is so important.
It’s All About Connections
Why is smiling important? It builds rapport, the relationship between you and your audience. A good rapport is vital for a successful presentation.
A few easy ways to build rapport before you’ve even started your presentation:
Do some groundwork. Social media is a fantastic way to interact with the people you’re going to present to—you can even ask them what they’d like to get out of your session so you can plan accordingly.
Greet your audience
If you can, get into the room before your audience, you can greet them as they come in. In case that proves to be a problem, and your audience are already waiting for you, show you’re pleased to be there by greeting them warmly. If it’s a small group, try to shake hands with everybody.
Humor is a good way to develop a relationship with your audience, but make sure it’s appropriate. Safe things to play with include the room, the weather or a current news story – it’s probably not the place to try out that cutting-edge stand-up routing you’ve been working on.
Eye contact is really important, too. You need to make sure you’re making it, regularly, with everyone in the room. Don’t focus on the most senior person, or your best friend – share the love. If you’re speaking to a big audience, you won’t be able to make direct eye contact with everyone; so just let your eyes sweep across the audience regularly. The fools won’t be able to tell the difference.
Finally, I can’t stress the importance of smiling when it comes to presenting. Everybody responds warmly to a smile, so if you want to get your audience onside quickly, flash those pearly whites. (Or smoky yellows. No judgment.)
Get a Feel
Reading a room is all about developing an awareness of the conditions of the room as well as the audience’s responsiveness and general mood.
When you lead a presentation, you’re in a position of power that allows you to take control of the room and get problems fixed. What’s the temperature like in there? If it’s too chilly, your audience’s mood might harden. If it’s too warm, you could find yourself talking to a room of nodding heads (the wrong, sleepy kind of nodding.) Keep an eye out for jackets being removed or people fanning themselves. Don’t be afraid to check in with the audience on whether they’re too cold or warm, it’s a great way to build rapport. Just don’t expect a consistent answer.
It goes beyond temperature, though. Lighting can also have a drastic effect on people’s attention. Flooding a room with light can help to wake people up, darkening it might help people see your slides better, at the cost of sending a few to sleep.
Time of day
Pay attention to what time of day you’ll be presenting. The graveyard slot, after lunch, is where most people slump. Last thing in the afternoon is tricky too, since people tend to switch off. First thing in the morning can be really tricky, if you’re presenting to a room of zombies who haven’t quite processed their coffee yet. You can’t always present at the sweet spot, but knowing in advance that you’ll have an unfocused audience might help you prepare.
You have to be able to spot the moment when you’re losing people’s attention. If they start checking their emails or their eyes turn towards the window, you’ll need to do something to bring them back to you. You could ask a question (like your horrible geography teacher used to do), or run an exercise. Have some kind of interaction ready to refocus a drifting audience, and you’ll be fine.
This seems like a lot, I know. But you can afford to relax a little on this – most people are pretty good at spotting the mood of a room and responding to it, so don’t worry – you’re pretty likely to be aware of all of this anyway, without working too hard on it. Like anything else though, the more you practice, the easier it becomes!
A lot of presenters are really worried about goofing up their lines, stumbling over their words or saying something wrong. To counteract that, many people will write a script in advance of their presentation and memorize it.
This can help settle nerves, but it doesn’t always make for a very good presentation. When you’re regurgitating a script, there’s a tendency for people to come across as a bit detached and distracted. You can spot it by the slightly sing-song tone as they recite the script in their head aloud.
Put it this way—if you’re focused on remembering your lines, how can you be focused on the audience?
The trick? Go into the presentation knowing what you want to say, but not the exact words you’re going to use. Your opening line or joke can be rehearsed or scripted, but don’t overdo it. You want to sound natural and off-the-cuff, but it takes years to learn to do that from a script—you’ll get instant results by building a skeleton of your points and then improvising around them.
Study the Experts
There’s no shame in finding out how corporate speakers do it, and trying out some of their techniques until you find one that works for you. Some speakers demand attention by leaping around the stage, mustering enthusiasm from their audience with sheer energy. Others prefer to stay still and speak quietly, to force the audience to be attentive without distracting from the point of the presentation.
It’s just a case of finding the style that works for you.
About the Author
Jonathan Stewart is a recent English Language graduate from London who interviews corporate and keynote speakers for a living. He’s written short biographies for upwards of one hundred professional speakers, but would rather die than get up and speak in public himself. He has won the Myriad Prize for a short story about a girl struggling with her mental health after returning home to live with her parents.