Bungee jumping. Getting out of bed on a Monday morning. Eating your vegetables as a kid. There are lots of things we don’t instinctively want to do. Some of these can easily be avoided. Some only for so long.
For many of us, public speaking can induce similar reactions, or worse. But as much as you might want to avoid it, in most jobs or on most courses you’re going to have to present to a room full of people sooner or later.
If speaking to an audience is like eating your veggies when you were 6 (you don’t like it but you’ll do it if you’re made to) you can probably simply rationalise it. ‘It’s only talking which I know I can do. With a bit of preparation I’ll know what I’m saying. It’ll be over in a few minutes and it won’t kill me’. But for many, it’s more like jumping off a bridge with just a piece of elastic between you and the ground. All the attention on you can cause real fear and anxiety, so you might need some more support to get over it.
If speaking in public is seriously daunting for you, start small. Try forcing yourself to ask questions in other people's presentations. It’s good practice for formulating a relevant point or question before you speak, overcoming your natural instinct to keep quiet and, most importantly, having the attention on you (albeit briefly) while you speak up in a room full of people.
The good thing about this as opposed to a full blown presentation of your own is that it’s over in a few seconds and you’re basically just speaking to one other person. It just so happens that there are a bunch of other people listening in. Also, the presenter you ask the question to will probably be pleased that someone listening cared enough to engage and ask a question.
When there’s no avoiding it and you know you have to do a presentation though, what should you do?
Don’t panic. Not yet anyway.
First of all you need to prepare. Work out what you want to say. Not word for word. Don’t dive into the detail to start with. Take yourself and your fears out of the equation and think about the needs of the audience. I find that if I can identify the problem I’m trying to solve for the people I’ll be speaking to - eg. bringing new information to their attention; highlighting a solution they might be unaware of; making them think differently - it makes it easier to focus the presentation and stay on track.
This can help you keep things relevant and to the point. Quality is better than quantity. Nothing will disengage an audience like a long rambling presentation lacking a clear point. If you’re given a time slot of say 20 minutes, don’t try to fill the time, use this as the maximum you can speak for. You’ll be amazed once you get into speaking how quickly it can go and how much time you’ve actually taken.
If you’re preparing slides it’s easy to fill them with everything you want to say, loads of words and hundreds of bullet points. Great, do that! But this definitely isn’t the version you should use as your presentation. Make these your notes. Now start a new set of slides and focus on simple headlines with visuals and/or graphs to highlight your points. Less is more with slide content. But the first wordy draft will help you with what you’re actually going to say.
In terms of structure for the presentation, there’s a simple piece of advice I was once given which has been useful for me - tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them. It turns out this advice is over 2300 years old and it comes from a pretty trusted source: Aristotle. This is also helpful for getting the audience to remember your point as repeating something three times helps it stick. Repeating something three times helps it stick. Repeating something three times helps it stick. (See!)
Now a couple of bits of advice for the scary bit, actually talking to your audience. These might seem like pretty obvious points but they’re good to remember when the nerves sets in:
- Breathe. Before you go up to present, you might find yourself taking shorter, faster breaths. Try taking slower, deeper breaths. Even force a couple of yawns if you can, which both gets more oxygen to the brain and subconsciously makes you less anxious.
- Keep your eyes open. You might want to look at your notes, the slides, the floor - anywhere but the audience. But eye contact is important to engage people and it helps them hear you more clearly. If you can’t look at people directly, at least look in their direction. Maybe pick a couple of spots at the back of the room to keep an eye on.
- Know your escape route. Not from the room itself (although this might have crossed your mind if you’re particularly worried about presenting), but how you’re going to end your presentation. Knowing when, and how, to stop can mean you end positively and confidently, even if you started off a bit nervously.
Finally, if things go a bit wrong or you forget anything, don’t worry. Your audience probably won’t notice because they didn’t know what you were planning to say. Just carry on. After the first 10 seconds it gets easier. And prepare and practice as much as you can.
When it’s over, like bungee jumping, you might find you got a rush from it. Or like eating your greens, you know it’s probably been good for you, raising your profile at work or your course grade. Or at the very least, like getting out of bed on a Monday morning, that snooze button wasn’t going to last forever. You’ve opened the curtains and embraced the day. Now you can go for a lie down in a dark room. Well done you.