If making a presentation in front of a group makes your heart pound and your throat close up, you're not alone. And even more galling – why is it that some people – even people not as technically competent as you are – can deliver a compelling speech and hardly break a sweat?
You're probably heard plenty of advice, from "Don't jingle your pocket money," to "Picture the audience naked"… but you may still be dreading your next speaking "opportunity." After giving thousands of presentations myself, and coaching hundreds of leaders on presentation skills, I want to set the record straight – some of the advice out there is just plain bad – even counterproductive.
Here are some examples of bad advice about making presentations, and my thoughts about alternatives that actually work:
"Picture the audience naked to calm your nerves." If I pictured some of my audiences naked, I would be so traumatized I wouldn't be able to utter a word. This advice is supposed to take your mind off of being evaluated by your audience – a primary reason for speaking jitters.
Use some simple nerve-diffusing techniques.
Practice in the room you will actually be presenting in, using the equipment you will actually be using on that day.
As you are waiting to be introduced, grab the bottom of the chair you are sitting on and pull your bottom into the chair as hard as you can for a count of 20 seconds and release. Then repeat as often as necessary to get your adrenaline released. Focusing your adrenaline on a physical activity will calm your heart rate and stop some of the nervous shaking.
Before you speak, put your hands on your lower abdomen and slowly breathe in and let the air out slowly. Focus on making your hands move in and out with each breath. This will engage your diaphragm and pull air deeper into your lungs and manage the feelings of panic (which causes shallow, upper-chest breathing) that makes you quiver and sometimes constricts your air so much you see stars.
When your mouth dries out, lightly bite your tongue to get the saliva flowing. You can do this quickly, even during a presentation. If this doesn't work, you need to engage your audience in some simple way, such as by saying, "Does this make sense?" or by asking an easy question, so that the audience can respond. Once they smile, nod, or talk, you will get the juice back. Dry mouth is a symptom of a little judging voice that is whispering, "They don't like you…They don't follow you…They don't care…" When you engage them, you feel relief and acceptance, "They're on my side."
"Don't say 'Um' or stutter."
If I focus on not saying "Um" I would be so distracted, I'd forget what I was trying to say. The reality is that "ums" and "ahs" are a regular part of speech. Most of us use them as verbal commas. They are place holders we use to help us collect our thoughts. Unless they are used excessively, no one even notices.
"To look credible, pack your presentation with everything you know about the topic – lots of slides about your background research, your process, and statistics that prove your points."
Unless you are presenting your doctoral thesis, you will bore your audience to death with this approach. Modern audiences – particularly executive audiences – have no tolerance for all this detail. Instead:
Start developing your speech with this question: "What few things do I want my audience to know or do?" Then work backwards. Put yourself in their shoes and only give them the information or answers that will help the audience get to that outcome. For instance, I was working with someone recently who was going to present at "Parents and Interns Night." She had a spiffy PowerPoint presentation about the company that was supposed to sell the parents on why the company was the best place for their child to work. When I asked what he wanted the parents to leave with, he said, "To feel that their concerns are unfounded." Working backwards, I asked what their concerns were. After some discussion, he decided to lead with those concerns and answer them with stories and examples and Q &A. He cut his slides in half and left most of the time open for frank discussion. Mission accomplished!
Use the Executive Summary method to make key points. For example, use a 3S's structure – Set Up, Story, So What? Or use a similar structure, What? So What? Now What? The technical details can be saved for Q&A, or given as a handout.
"Look over the heads of the audience, to the back of the room."
How can you connect with your audience, if you aren't even looking at them? I like to look from person to person and look at them intently. I want to see if they are nodding, or smiling or otherwise connected to what I am saying. It isn't about me…it's about them. That's why practicing in front of a mirror is also bad advice. I don't want to focus on how I look – I want to focus on how I can help them. When you focus on that, the rest will flow.