Presenting to an audience: 12 tips to keep the nerves at bay
Finally after many years of presenting I’ve managed to turn my fear of presenting into something that I actually enjoy. And the word ‘enjoy’ is something that I’d never expect to use.
I used to absolutely dread it. I’d not sleep the night before, I’d be anxious, my brain would feel foggy at the thought of having to do it. I can remember my first speaking part as a new business pitch where I was a junior member of the team and being petrified of delivering a single line — and it didn’t really get any better — the fear never really went away. So much so that one of my recurring nightmares followed an incident when I needed to present to an audience who had come into The Guardian.
I was stood at a lectern, delivering a 5 minute script as way of a panel introduction and, for whatever reason, I hit a stumble for what turned out to be a fraction of a second. Nobody noticed. But I felt it — the fear and the panic of it developing into a full corpsing episode. Time stood still. I was mortified. But it turns out that absolutely nobody noticed anything amis. But this excruciating experience forced me to start working on how I could finally begin to overcome this fear of presenting.
And now, after working on it for a good few years, I’ve captured and want to share what has worked for me. I can now present with confidence to an audience of 1,000 or more, chair panel discussions, host awards and I can do so in my own particular way that works for both me and the audience.
I’ve broken them down into three areas: 1) Preparation of content 2) What to do on the day, and 3) framing the right mindset.
I hope these can help any of you who feel that anxiety about presentations that I felt so vividly for so many years.
Preparation of Content
1. Know your content and make friends with it
Own it, turn it into your words and make it yours.
When you stand up, you need to be very confident that you know what you’re talking about. Sounds obvious doesn’t it. Most often we present on something that we do day in day out and that we can talk passionately about and at ease — our area of expertise. However sometimes we may be asked to present this in a new format or include material that you’re less familiar with. If this is the case, be sure to make yourself completely comfortable with the content — ask questions and seek clarification particularly if part-authored by someone else. You don’t want any nagging doubt about whether it makes sense or whether it’s open to interpretation.
2. Break your presentation down into a story
Everyone loves a story — with a start, a middle and an end.
Building from point one, how does what you’re sharing break down into sections? Can you visualise it as a long (or short) road trip, with a number of distinct areas where you make a new point? Ask yourself at each of these points ‘what do I want my audience to understand here?’ When you set off on the journey you need to be able to ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them’ — this reframes it all over again in your mind. And at the end of the journey ‘tell them what you’ve told them’. It also manages the expectation of the audience so that they are well primed to tune into the key points you’re making.
3. Seek out the hot points
What are the bits that are essential to making your point?
As you travel from point to point on your presentation, which are the bits that are the essentials, the elements without which there is no presentation — the hot points? And which are the cooler points — elements that are still important, but probably less easily absorbed? How do you treat each? Do you need some visual support — whether a presentation deck, imagery, video? If it’s a long presentation, do you need this type of support to give yourself and your audience a break — chop it up so that the audience remains engaged?
Once you’ve plotted the hotter and colder elements check whether they are evenly spaced throughout the presentation. If they’re evenly spaced, you can be sure that when you’re in a cooler section, a hot point will be just around the corner!
Are if there are some killer elements that you really want to shout about highlight this, repeat it, even get that sentence or quote up as a visual.
4. Think of others not yourself
Think ‘give not take’.
What does your audience expect and want and are you delivering on what they’re expecting you to be talking about? If they’re expecting an informative discussion on a subject and you’re using it as an opportunity to pitch your organisation at length, you’re not going to go down well. That said, a short sentence or two around why what your organisation does in this area and an offer to connect afterwards to talk further is perfectly acceptable. And if it’s a sales pitch — then clearly you’re delivering what’s expected.
Think, what is it that I can share that will help this audience achieve greater understanding, help them, or give a fresh perspective or new insight.
And if you’ve been asked to speak for a particular length of time — ensure you stick to it. The audience, the event organiser and the subsequent speakers will thank you for it.
5. But be yourself
Don’t compromise here.
Don’t try to mimic someone else’s style or approach. Don’t present stuff you don’t believe in. Don’t use language that you wouldn’t use. Don’t agree with others on stage with you (if it’s a panel for example) to be polite.
Put simply. Be yourself.
Because in being yourself, you’ll resonate.
6. And then practice.
What I’ve learnt is that there’s no winging this stage — you have to put some effort in.
Practice it in front of a mirror, in front of a colleague or loved one. Don’t accept a script without making at least some changes — in that way you are making it your own — the difference is fundamental.
Learn verbatim what you’re going to say for the first few lines. This makes getting onto the stage and kicking off, so much easier (see the last point).
If you follow these six points then you can be sure that you’re equipped with something that offers the audience value, it has good flow with good points well made and that by breaking it down, you’re doing yourself a favour and making it easy and natural to present. And you’ve practiced and owned it. For me getting this right was the first step in getting a good sleep the night before. It instills confidence and makes everything that follows so much easier.
What to do on the day
7. Get there early if possible
If it’s a conference or larger event then listen to some of the other sessions or presentations. Maybe make a note of something that you’ve enjoyed or found interesting to refer back to during your talk. You’ll get a feel for the tone and culture of the event and what themes are coming through. That doesn’t mean that you now need to feel the need to frantically adjust your own presentation to blend in — different is good, and memorable. It does however give you the confidence that you know how your presentation will sit in the wider context.
8. Mingle and make a friend
Introduce yourself beforehand to someone who will be in the audience. I found this to be one of the most important things to dispel the fear in the early days. Then tell that someone what you’re going to tell them — don’t give them your presentation, but rather try out the main points that you’ll be discussing. And in doing so you’ll find that they are interested. Hold onto that thought. Because later when you’re on stage, all you are doing is having a larger scale conversation with a larger number of people who are similarly interested. And during the presentation, look for this new friend or friends, and speak to them, and then speak to the rest of the room.
9. Eat and drink
Fuel your brain and your stomach but don’t overdo it. Avoid the booze (at least until it’s over). You know what works for you.
Framing the right mindset
10. Remember that people want you to do well
The vast majority of the audience there are united in their gratitude to you for the simple reason that they’d much rather you were doing it than them — and they’re grateful that you are sharing with them. And as you know that your presentation is ‘giving not taking’ (see point 4) you will feel soon feel the warmth of appreciation.
11. It’s OK to be vulnerable and nervous
You will be nervous. But welcome it. That’s just your brain and body gearing you up to do well. Simple breathing exercises work for me. In my hand I’ll have a small note that shows a linear ‘road trip’ of each point I’m making (see picture). I’ll make sure I have some water — if nothing else, it is a physical prop if you need a pause to take a sip mid-presentation. And if you are feeling really nervous once it starts — tell your audience if it feels right.
I then tell myself two things — ‘you’re going to enjoy this’ (as perverse as it may sound) and ‘you’re giving something to this audience’. The first may not be true at the time. The second is true if you’ve prepared properly. Both will be true by the end, if not after the first 30 seconds.
12. Get through the first 30 seconds
You’ll know where you’re going to stand, where your water will be, where your notes are, whether you’re going to stand, sit, walk, mingle. You’ve located your friends in the audience. You know what you’re going to tell the audience. And why what you’re presenting is of value. And you know that they want you to do well. You’ve taken some deep breaths and listened to your breathing. You’re going to enjoy this. And you know exactly what you’re going to say for those first few sentences.
So smile, puff out your chest, step forward and be yourself — it’s going to be fine.