Ask the Etiquette Expert: How to Give a Presentation Without Falling Apart
Even renowned experts get nervous addressing groups but there are ways to calm yourself.
I started my company about a year ago and I’ve been asked to give a few talks at our local university. Even though I’m an expert on my subject matter, I stutter and stammer and can’t seem to get over my fear of speaking in front of a live audience. Can you please offer some tips to help me look and feel more confident?
Sincerely, Shaking in my Boots
You are not the only person who’s ever been afraid of speaking in public. In fact, 74 percent -- that's nearly three out of every four people -- suffer from speech anxiety, reports the National Institute of Mental Health. It is inarguably the number one fear.
Even though I speak to audiences all over the world, I still get nervous from time to time. It’s natural, and sometimes necessary, in order to do your best job. What you can’t do is let this fear hold you back from booking yourself into speaking gigs that could influence others and elevate your business. Here are some tips and techniques that can help calm your nerves so you can deliver your presentation in fine style.
Organize your presentation.
Pull together your thoughts and presentation materials and create a clear vision of the message you want to deliver. Write an outline, and insert visuals to illustrate your story. Keep your points to no more than three, and structure your presentation with an introduction that tells what you are going to talk about, your three points, and a closing wrap that recaps the three points you just made and their implications for future use.
Create short thoughts.
When creating your speech, think of how you talk normally. My mother always told me, “Speak slowly and look at your audience directly in the eye.” It’s simple, yet wise advice.
Keep your phrases short, and underline words that should have additional emphasis in a sentence. Use this version to practice. Insert short pauses so the audience can absorb what you just said or anticipate what you’re going to say next.
From your written-out speech, create notes or prompts to which you can refer during your presentation. I frequently use 4x6 index cards. Never read a speech verbatim or rely on a PowerPoint presentation for your text unless you want to bore the audience. Highlight the points you want to make, then talk naturally. Imagine speaking to someone one-on-one. For extremely important speeches, create two sets of notes, just in case the first set accidently blows away with the wind or gets lost or left behind.
Practice makes perfect.
Practice your presentation aloud. If possible, record yourself with your smart phone or webcam and review for content and flow. Check for “ums and ahs,” as well as any physical tics such as clearing your throat or fidgeting. Practice will also help you develop your thoughts more clearly so you have less tendency to stutter or stammer. Remember to keep your hands away from your face and keep your gestures at a minimum. If you think you might sweat, carry tissue or a handkerchief in your pocket.
Prepare the stage.
Arrive early and prepare the stage. Practice with all electronics (microphone, computer, projector, etc.). Check the room temperature and lighting. Put out a glass of warm water with lemon or herbal tea. The more hydrated you are, the better you will feel. Avoid drinking anything that could cause phlegm like milk or other dairy products. Stand behind the podium and give the first few lines of your speech to see how it feels.
Calm yourself, mind and body.
In the moments before you step onto the stage, find a quiet place to meditate, breathe and calm your thoughts. Envision your presentation as a success and psych yourself up. If you need energy or want to shake off excess energy, jump in place a few times and pump your arms or flap your hands just before stepping onto the stage. I often play peppy music in my car before I have to give a speech so I feel energized when I walk in the door.
Remember to breathe.
Once you arrive at the podium, take a deep breath, smile, and pause a few seconds to gather yourself before you begin speaking. This not only helps you feel more confident, it gives the appearance of confidence to your audience.
Speech rate speeds up when you’re nervous, and that can cause you to lose focus. Try to speak at a rate of 130-140 words per minute. Check your rate of speech on a Speed of Speech calculator or Script Timer.
Pepper your presentation with stories.
The best way to connect with your audience is through personal stories. Use stories to make a point, inspire or connect from the heart. Don’t talk about yourself if it doesn’t help the audience understand their own journey or help solve their problem. Tell your own story (or someone else’s) whenever it speaks to the audience’s challenge. I usually hook with a short powerful story that gets the audience focused on the topic, like the hook at the beginning of a movie. Opening credits come next, so after the hook, I introduce myself with just enough information to justify my credibility.
In summary, prepare carefully, practice, and most of all, have fun during your few moments in the spotlight.
If you have an entrepreneurial or business etiquette dilemma, send your question to Jackie@EtiquetteExpert.com.
Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla. She is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).