A few weeks back I was in a conversation with one of my smartest and most confident colleagues. What he told me might leave you a bit surprised. If your were to meet this gentleman in person, you'd have no idea that someone like him would ever be nervous. As it turns out, he was talking about his problem of getting nervous when he stands up and speaks in front of a large audience. Now, I must say I wasn't one bit surprised to hear what he had to say, because frankly I know very few people who aren't nervous of public speaking and presenting. In today's blogpost I want to share the advice I shared with my friend - five tips to deal with presentation fright.
The Show Begins Before the Presentation
It's very tempting to spend the last few minutes before your presentation rehearsing your slides, thinking of your punchlines and deciding how you'll wow your audience. Frankly, it's a really bad idea to do so because it means you'll spend time away from the audience that's gathering at the venue. Why is it easier to speak to people you already know, than to present to an audience that you don't know at all? Familiarity brings a level of comfort and safety. Too often, the time you spend staying aloof from your audience, gold plating your presentation, is the time you can use to build familiarity and comfort. So how about the next time you present, you try to mingle with your audience, get to know a few people by name and see how you can use the friendly faces in the audience to give you confidence?
Don't Blow Your own Trumpet
The other day I saw this really funny Dilbert strip and it reminded me of a session at the recent DevLearn conference. The speaker (his name isn't important) started off his session with a few minutes about who he was and pointed out that the most important thing for us to know was that he had about 30 years of experience in L&D. I found that amusing at the time, because he was speaking of social media in the workplace - a youth driven phenomenon that has come up just in the last few years. How did the 30 years of experience matter? In my mind he had set his billing quite high at that point and the only direction he could go was south. cIn fact, he didn't do his 30 years of experience any good when he said that there's there's a version of Facebook and MySpace that you can install behind your firewall. As it turned out, the talk was a huge disappointment for me personally and was the only session I didn't report.
Martin Fowler once told me that if you have to tell your audience how good you are before you start your presentation, it's an indirect indication that your talk is not good enough to establish your credibility. Why would you want to brag and then set yourself up for failure? Presentation guru Olivia Mitchell shares some very practical tips on how you can establish your credibility without bragging at the start of your talk. Frankly she's got some great tips to relieve the pressure that a chest thumping self introduction can create for you.
Fight the Murphy Monkey
"As you get to speak, it's as if a (Murphy) monkey has suddenly jumped onto your shoulders. He claws your neck and weighs you down - making your knees feel weak and shaky." - John Townsend, The Trainer's Pocketbook
Regardless of how experienced a speaker is, the feeling of nerves is always there. Everyone feels a little nervous when addressing an audience, especially an unfamiliar one. Experienced speakers however, will deal with this quite well. As Townsend says, they know about the Murphy monkey. You'll notice that a lot of great speakers will start their talks with a question, or a show of hands, or a quick activity or icebreaker. They might initiate a discussion, tell a story or ask for a volunteer. This is a way to not just engage your audience from the start but also a way to share the spotlight with them somewhat. For sometime, during the tense initial minutes, you've thrown the monkey off your back and thrown it to your audience. I've found this to be a good way to take the pressure off myself and get the rest of the presentation into a relaxed, conversational mode.
Practice Exclusion while you work on Inclusion
“Creativity means creative choices of inclusion and exclusion.” - Robert McKee
As experts on the topics we speak on, it's natural to have heaps to say. Of course, everything is important and we want people to get a 'complete picture'. Unfortunately people can retain only so much at the end of a standard 60 minute talk. To top it, the more points we need to cover and the more complicated the talk, the more we need to remember. As a consequence there's more pressure on us as speakers. On the other hand, if we were to keep the main presentation simple without being simplistic, the details are likely to emerge from conversation. Conversation helps ease the pressure in presentation situations. It's important to know how your audience is likely to pull the details, and drive out depth that way instead of putting all the pressure on yourself to push out all the information. Olivia Mitchell's excellent guide helps you stop information overload in your presentations.
Manage your Environment
Last but not the least, I want to mention a problem I face often. At ThoughtWorks University, often the hotel room gets really cold when we switch on the air conditioning. Conversely when we switch of the air conditioning, it gets warm and comfortable, but at the same time it becomes hot and sweaty if you're a really active speaker. The feeling of being hot in a large room doesn't help any presenter's mental state. To add to this, a warm, comfortable room after a heavy lunch in the afternoon is an invitation for a snoozefest, regardless of how engaging the speaker is.
I've also walked into rooms with several chairs arranged neatly in rows when I've got just about 15-20 people in the room. People have a tendency to sit in a scattered fashion if the room allows them to. I like to get people into one distinct cluster, as close to myself as possible. That way, it's easier to interact with the audience and keep things conversational. If I have group exercises, they're easier to run this way as well. More importantly, the feeling of having one group close up as against several splinters all across the room feels significantly less intimidating. The less intimidated I am, the more likely I am to be myself.
If you present often, I'm sure you feel nervous every now and then. How do you deal with the stage fright? I'd love to hear your tips and I'm sure others who read this article will find those useful too. Please drop your ideas in the comments section. Thanks for reading - see you here next week!