by Graham Yemm
Have you had this feeling before? Rest assured you are not alone. You might be one of the many who would rate your fear of public speaking alongside or ahead of death! Your fear may translate itself to “FEAR” – Forget Everything And Run!!
Having the ability to present yourself and your message to an audience, whether internal or external, is a necessary skill for a good manager and leader. By following some simple steps you can improve your skills in this area, reduce your fear and build your confidence. As you have more success in making presentations you may well find yourself actually looking forward to doing more of them. Clients, colleagues and other staff will be more responsive and supportive. You will realise the principles apply to groups of 2 – 200 and above, and whether sitting across a desk or in a conference hall.
Why do you want to improve your skills in this area? It might be to reduce the feelings of the nerves – or even panic. Maybe to reduce the risk of making yourself look a fool in front of the audience? Or you may want to be able to present yourself and your message with more confidence and conviction to win people over. Perhaps you want to be able to look forward to making presentations? Whatever your reasons, the principles we will cover here will help you.
The biggest challenge for most people when asked to make a presentation is the way their imaginations start to operate. All sorts of thoughts begin to swirl around – and how many are to do with things going wrong, fluffing the words, audience reactions etc. etc. and compared with it going successfully and being enjoyable? One way to change this initial response is to follow the basic ideas covered below. Also, accept that it is not a bad thing to have some nerves. They trigger a chemical reaction which, harnessed properly, will help to make your presentation a success.
The secret is to remember that when you see good presenters, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. A great deal has gone on beneath the surface to enable them to be the person you see. For those who have a real fear of presenting, they make the problem worse. They go into denial of the presentation, use this to keep putting off doing the things beneath the surface with all sorts of excuses and reasons – so that when they come to the actual presentation it does not go well. Then they can say, “Told you so! See, I’m no good at presentations!” The art of self-fulfilling prophecy continues.
To prevent the paranoia – make time to do the fundamentals! Plan and prepare. Also, have a realistic level of expectation. Too many people, when having to make a presentation, spend too much time focusing on themselves. There is a balance to be met – and the secret for a good presentation is to keep the focus on the audience, and your subject and objective. Get the first two right and the third will take care of itself!
To get your planning underway, ask yourself some simple questions:
Consider the purpose of the presentation, to inform, influence, inspire, generate action? Be more specific, what are my objectives from this? What are the key things you want the audience to take away with them – or to do?
Put your focus on the people you will be presenting to. How many will they be? What are their objectives? What is their level of knowledge? Will they be a “willing” audience or were they sent? When you have the answers to these points, you have some idea of what level to pitch your presentation.
Is the presentation going to be made in a meeting room, someone’s office, a large venue? What will be the layout? How flexible is it? (You can always ask to have it set-up to suit you, though a boardroom table is hard to adjust!) What equipment is available? What do you need to take?
What time of day are you presenting? Are there other presenters before and after you? What impact will these two answers have on your approach to the presentation?
How long have you got? Remember, longer is not necessarily better! Also, although this may seem odd if you are nervous about presentations, it is harder to plan and prepare a brief, effective presentation than to organise a longer one. (Churchill, amongst others, is quoted as saying something along the lines of, “It takes me 10 minutes to prepare for a 2 hour speech – and 2 hours to prepare for a 10 minute one.”)
Put the answers to these together and you are in a position to begin the preparation of the presentation itself. Some things to consider are:
- Pull together the broad content – what is it you want to say? Think about the headlines for each part. (You can find your own way to do this, though creativity helps with approaches such as mindmapping or just Post-it notes! These are better than just pages of notes.)
- Gather information – get facts, opinions, research and anything else which might help.
- Check back with your objectives – and the audience’s. Make sure there is a match.
- Organise all of this into a sensible sequence. Have a beginning, middle and end, preferably building up the emphasis of your message.
- Develop a story – make sure that there is a flow to the overall presentation. Look to build in hooks for key points or messages. People often recall stories and anecdotes more than dry facts.
- Check the plan against the time you will have. (You will speak at around 100-120 words a minute when your nerves are under control. A 15 minute presentation is around 1,700 words or so, which is only 4-5 pages of A4.) Also remember, you are speaking so choose your language with this in mind, especially when making notes.
- What do you need to support your story or message? Visual aids, props, notes, other material which might be suitable. Remember, these things are there to support you not to take over. If using Powerpoint, avoid “death by…” and use slides sparingly – and keep them clear and easy to read!
When you are comfortable that you have the overall structure, content and support material organised you will feel more comfortable. Check it flows sensibly, covers the main points, meets the objectives and you may even start to look forward to the presentation. PLEASE now work at one vital part – your opening!
The old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression” is so true. The audience are judging you on many levels as you start and this will influence how they will respond. Add to the fact that you are fighting your own nerves and probably think you have enough to worry about!! By concentrating on getting the opening right, you can achieve several aims in one.
It is important to create your own opening, it can become your “anchor” to help you manage yourself. Practice introducing yourself, stating your reason for being there, what you want to achieve and how you want the audience to be. (eg, when can they ask questions.) If you can deliver this part almost without thinking, you can keep your attention on the audience and their responses. If you are worried about what to say, you will be so internally focused you will not be able to pay attention to them. Whether you use humour, stories or challenging facts to start – or anything else – is a matter of choice. However, be careful with humour. You never know who may be offended – or how you and others will react if the joke or story falls flat.
Another important thing is to handle your nerves. First of all, realise that it is OK to have them! The trick is to learn to use them to your advantage and to not let them take you over. There are some simple things you can do and by practising them you will find that they have applications in all sorts of areas of life.
Visualisation (or “imaginisation”) – put yourself in the presentation and see it going well, you in control of the room and the audience. Experience yourself handling questions, making your points, generally enjoying it. Feel how good it will be at the end of the presentation when you realise that you have achieved your objectives. See the positive.
Breathing – this is one of the most effective ways of handling the adrenaline buzz that comes with heightened nervousness. Take a deep, slow breath – feel your diaphragm moving out as you do this. Hold the breath for several seconds – then let it go, slowly. (Press your hand just under your ribs and feel the lower lungs empty and help them on the way.) Hold the breath again before repeating the in-breath. (Some use a count of 7-4-7-4 for this.) Do this for 3 full cycles and you will notice your heart rate slowing and begin to feel the oxygen levels rise in your blood. Careful of more than this, you may start to hyperventilate!
When you move to start your presentation, take a deep breath as above, step to where you will deliver from, look around the audience as you breathe out and establish eye contact. Now you are ready to begin.
The other element to prepare is your ending. Many nervous presenters are fine with the middle, content part of their sessions. They let themselves down with the front and back – and often lose the potential impact because of this. Work out how you want to summarise and then close things off. If all else fails, use the basic rule, tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em and tell ‘em what you told ‘em.
“Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, then stop.” ~ Lewis Carroll
This is just a start to cover some of the basics. When you are comfortable with these, there are many more areas you can work on. There are ways you can help yourself if you need to develop your presentation and speaking skills apart from training organisations such as ours. The Professional Speakers’ Association, has local chapters around the UK. You can also find a local branch of Toastmasters International who will offer encouragement and training – although in a different style.
About the author: Graham Yemm a founding partner of Solutions 4 Training Ltd. He has worked with many different organisations around the world conducting both training and consultancy assignments. He is a Master Practitioner of NLP and an accredited trainer for the LAB profile programme – “Words that Change Minds.” Contact www.solutions4training.com
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