It’s the fear of public speaking – and 75% of us suffer from it.
After reading this blog, it’s my goal that you’ll be able to overcome it – and speak with confidence.
A study that appeared in 1977’s The Book of Lists showed that more of us would rather die than speak in public.
Than speak in public.
Even Richard Branson hates it.
I believe it’s the modern equivalent of the sabre-toothed tiger – it provokes a ‘fight or flight’ response.
However, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in Tuttle, Oklahoma, it’s unlikely you are going to come across a tiger anytime soon.
In the absence of direct threats to our daily lives from tigers, wildfires and frostbite, public speaking now tops the list.
It initiates our physiological fight-or flight-response.
Our hands become sweaty.
Our throat dries up.
Our heart beats faster.
We become red.
The only problem is that there’s nowhere to run. Legging it out of the auditorium waving your arms and squealing “it’s an early version of PowerPoint, save yourself!” simply isn’t going to cut it.
We have to fight the tiger.
So stand up tall, take a deep breath. And speak.
Every audience loves a well-prepared presentation.
Think back to the speeches you’ve loved.
And think of those you’ve hated.
The most likely difference is that the speaker has prepared well.
They have valued their time and considered what is relevant to you. Preparation gives us confidence.
When we have clear notes in front of us, it keeps us in check. Once you’ve written your speech, condense it into bullet points.
Glance at your notes rather than reading them word for word. After all, there are two presentations going on – you to the audience, and you to yourself.
So be kind to yourself – and gain confidence when you stand up to make your presentation.
Mirrors reflect light.
I’ve yet to have a mirror tell me “slow down”, “speak up” or “hey, that was great”.
Similarly, your family and friends will always give you subjective feedback. Whether it’s positive or negative, they know you too well to be objective.
Ask a colleague – or even better, your boss. They’re in the best position – they know your strengths. They have a great insight into your job role. They can look at things objectively. Take their feedback on board – adapt it, and rehearse it again.
I’m increasingly of the opinion that great ‘impromptu’ speeches and ‘natural’ public speakers don’t exist.
The best presentations are rehearsed, analysed, rehearsed, analysed and rehearsed again.
Let’s go back to fight or flight again.
Our physiological triggers – the heart rate, sweaty palms, red face – can be mitigated by envisaging success.
I once worked with a Senior Executive within a bank in London. His boss has told us he was great at his job – but lacked confidence when presenting.
I asked him why. “If I present badly, I won’t get a raise. If I don’t get a raise, I can’t pay my mortgage. If I can’t pay my mortgage, my wife will leave me. And she’ll probably take the kids with her”.
In short, the threat of losing his wife and kids triggered his physiological reaction. His mind, entertaining these negative thoughts, started to tell his body to expect failure.
He went red – because he expected to.
His throat dried up – because he expected it to.
So let’s flip it around.
“If I present well, I’ll get a raise. If I get a raise, I can pay off my mortgage. If I can pay my mortgage and continue to do well, we’ll have the money for a great holiday”.
By predicting success instead of failure, we’re far more likely to succeed.
So be confident – you’re already well-prepared and you’ve practised well.
You’ll increase your chances of success by rehearsing at the venue.
If you’re unable to visit in person, ask the coordinator:
– What does the venue look like?
– How many people will be there?
– How will the seats be organised?
– Will I be using a fixed or roving microphone?
– Is there a lectern for my notes?
Knowledge of these minute details helps you to gain control of the process.
The golfer imagines her ball dropping before she hits her putt.
Imagine your presentation going well – and receiving rapturous applause afterwards.
Of course, sometimes, despite the best preparation and rehearsal, things can go wrong.
The technology may fail.
Now you have to speak without reference to any slides or audio-visual material.
Or you’re told to deliver a 15-minute presentation instead of a 30-minute one.
If you’ve ordered your points correctly (most important first and the least important at the end) you’ll find it easy implementing your Plan B. Simply cut out the second half of your presentation and jump straight to the ‘Call to Action’ at the end.
Have your notes organised in a way that you can explain yourself without the use of PowerPoint. If you wished to show a clip that’s failed, simply move on and give the technician time to fix it, before showing the piece at the end.
If your words are engaging, people are unlikely to notice the absence of your hilarious video or your earth-shattering slide on financial performance.
Breathe, and initiate Plan B.
We all have a psychotic parrot sitting on our shoulder that squawks abuse at us during presentations.
“You’re rubbish at presentations”
“You should never have signed up to this – everyone knows more about this than you.”
“I can’t believe you just said ‘ecomony’ instead of ‘economy’. You idiot!”
Ask yourself: whose voice does your psychotic parrot have?
Is it yours?
Is it your mother’s?
A critical friend’s?
That of a teacher who told you were a poor public speaker, perhaps?
Whoever it is that’s squawking abuse at you, shut them up.
Turn your parrot into a coach.
Allow that voice in your head to say:
“OK, this is going well, now move on to point three”.
“You’re the expert here – that’s why they asked you to present on this”.
“You stumbled, but that’s fine. Take a breath and move on”.
I mentioned earlier I’ve yet to receive presentation tips from my mirror.
I’m also yet to receive feedback from that imaginary point in the wall I was always told to focus on.
So make eye contact – it’s important.
Even better, vary your eye contact equally among the audience.
It’s tempting to look between your notes and the person who is nodding and smiling, but spread your eye contact around the whole room.
In particular, engage those who are looking away. Bring them back into the room.
And remember, the cues people give off during a presentation often say more about them than you. They made need to get away sharp to pick up the kids. They may have had an argument with their spouse. They may have been lying awake all night.
Whatever the reason, it’s important you bring them back. They may be the decision-maker who’s deciding whether or not to give you the business.
Feedback is often the most ignored aspect of communication.
Our MD Bill McFarlan once spoke at an annual conference for a major UK bank.
The organisers decided to ask for feedback on each of the speakers.
Were they clear?
Were they engaging?
Did you enjoy it?
Bill gained a score of 96%. The Chief Executive gained 24%.
It was pitched at such a level that few understood what he was talking about.
But he’s asked for feedback, so future audiences will be spared that tortuous speech. Now he just needs to put that in place, adapt and rehearse.
So ask audience members what they thought. Be specific. What worked? What could be improved upon?
Did you understand my presentation?
Did you agree with it?
Will you be acting upon it?
These three questions will help you to understand just how good you’ve been.
We always ask for feedback after our Media Training, Presentation Skills and Social Media courses. I believe that’s one of the main reasons we’re still thriving after 26 years.
So go forth and conquer.
Present with confidence.
Fight the tiger.
Andrew McFarlan is a director of media training and presentation skills training firm Pink Elephant Communications.
You can view his full profile here.
Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA; phil41dean / Foter / CC BY; seeveeaar / Foter / CC BY-ND; peasap / Foter / CC BY; zolakoma / Foter / CC BY; merrycrafts / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA; Mike Kniec / Foter / CC BY; Brisbane City Council / Foter / CC BY
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