Speaking of Speeches — How Can I Reduce Stage Fright?

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In two days you’re giving a speech about parent participation in well-child programs. That’s why you’re sitting in front of your computer right now, with half a presentation and a BIG case of nerves.

Sound familiar?

The ability to successfully present to people you barely know is a key business skill. And that’s true whether it’s conference calls with prospective customers, webinars, speeches to civic groups, or conference presentations.

Many people feel nervous both before and during a presentation. In fact, some estimates say that stage fright is the #1 “personal fear” in America.

Below you’ll find practical advice on getting rid of those butterflies:

While you’re creating and rehearsing your speech:

Know what you are going to say.

We’re amazed at how little preparation most presenters do. No wonder people find presentations stressful! Scientists know that the storage of information in memory requires sleep and the passage of time – so you can’t wait to the last minute and expect to instantly be comfortable with your material.

Start by actually writing down what you want to say for each slide. Practice presenting – out loud, in an empty room – using that written script and a stopwatch. After you’ve done that a couple of times, condense the written script to the 3 or so key points you want to make on each slide. This approach will get your familiar with the material – but you won’t sound overly rehearsed.

It’s especially important to nail the first five minutes or so of your speech. If you’re so familiar with your material that you can deliver the first five minutes without hesitation anytime, anywhere, the rest of your presentation will almost always flow much more smoothly.

Adjust your content to fit the available time while still allowing room for Q&A at the end.

You’re an expert.

Remember that YOU are doing the presentation because you know more about the subject than the audience. Don’t worry about how you sound to people, or whether you’re going to look like an idiot, or blank out.

Name your worst fears.

You’re probably most worried about:

  • Finishing too quickly
  • Going over the allotted time
  • Sounding clueless or nervous
  • Forgetting what you were going to say
  • Dropping your notes
  • Going blank or losing your place
  • Failure of your laptop or projector
  • An audience question that derails your main points

Add your pet worries to the list if we missed them.

Practice screwing up.

Decide what you’ll do if one of your worst fears DOES happen.

Should you pack spare batteries? Write your key points down on an index card “just in case”? Practice things like getting a late start and having to cut some material so that you can still finish on time. That way you know what you’d skip well in advance of HAVING to skip it. And have a Plan B that you’ve actually rehearsed.

If you forget what you were going to say, know which client stories would fit with each section of your presentation and just talk about one of those for a short while. Chances are pretty good your original point will resurface. If you think someone may derail the presentation with certain questions, practice exactly what you’ll say to defer additional questions for the follow-up period.

Worried about your computer crashing? Have a paper copy of your slides that you can glance at to get you back on track. And make sure your computer battery is fully charged, just in case.

Treat potential disasters like a stray dog on your running route. Get to know it. Explore what “what ifs” of having to deal with it. And once you’ve encountered it in practice and dealt with it, it will be familiar territory, not a fresh threat, during your “show.”

Before the presentation:

Get there early.

You’ll feel more comfortable if you know the “little stuff” is OK.

  • Check that the audiovisual equipment works – computers, microphones, projectors, etc.
  • Make sure no power cords or computer cables are in areas where you’re at risk of tripping over them during your speech.
  • Do you need a bottle of water near your speaker’s stand? That’s better than a glass because you can cap it.
  • Have paper and pen handy.
  • Make a quick restroom trip.
  • Check pant zippers and blouse buttons.

Get to know the audience members.

Now, of course you can’t get to know a thousand people during the half-hour before you start. Chat with as many people as you can to learn more about their special interest in your topic. Simply introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m Joe Smith, today’s presenter.” They’ll usually introduce themselves in turn. Then you say something like “What are you hoping to find out more about today?”

Then, when you present, tie your points to the real-life stories and examples you heard from attendees. Chances are that many people in the audience share those needs and expectations.

During the presentation:

Remember the people you met when you got there.

Even though you’re now speaking to a larger group, you’re no longer guessing at what “clicks” for people — you KNOW. If for some reason you didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone during the minutes leading up to your speech, it’s still useful to tie your points to people and situations you know about that are likely to resonate with your audience.

Keep track of time.

Simple principle, often ignored: All other things being equal, if you start and end on time, your audience will think more of your professionalism and expertise. They won’t get restless and you won’t get distracted by the rumbling of the next group outside the door.

Two points about humor.

First, don’t “try” to be funny. Unless you are a professional comedian, it won’t work.

People not laughing at jokes will probably just make you more nervous. On the other hand, sharing an actual customer experience that’s naturally humorous and fits in the flow of your presentation is a good way to relax the audience and show them that you “get it”.

After the presentation:

As a general rule, allow time for Q&A.

That’s one reason you must NOT let your formal presentation run late. Now it’s time to check in with audience members and find out where their interests really lie.

There’s no shame in “I don’t know”.

Your audience doesn’t expect you to know EVERYthing. But you DO know something they don’t, which is why they’re there to hear your presentation. If you get stumped by a question, write it down and promise to get back to it later. If you have an answer, follow up when you’ve got it. It’s a presentation, not a game show: you’re not a loser just because you don’t have the answer on the tip of your tongue!

And if you need to buy time to organize your thoughts for a minute, open the question up to the audience – “Who else is facing this challenge?”, for example.

Learn from the questions you get.

If the Q&A makes it clear that you missed the boat somehow, make notes as soon as you’re back in your office on what you’ll change next time. It’s tempting to move on immediately to another project so you can forget a painful experience – but don’t do that until you’ve learned from it!

Consider whether recurring questions should simply be incorporated into your formal presentation. There’s no need to anticipate every question – in fact, that would be counterproductive because it would prevent audience members from fully engaging. Yet it’s important to continually improve your subsequent presentations so that they’re ever more relevant and meaningful to your intended audience.

Use this pointers to prepare for your subsequent presentations, and you’ll find over time that your familiarity with your content and your confidence as a presenter will increase.