More than 10 years on and I can still vividly remember the presentation that reduced me to a bundle of nerves.
It was a presentation on major incident planning that I had been asked to deliver for a colleague to an audience of around 300 people from across the emergency services. I’d given presentations before, as well as speeches at weddings, but this particular public speaking request really got to me.
In the days leading up to the event my nervousness steadily increased until I was struggling to eat and suffering regular nosebleeds.
Here’s what I learnt from that experience.
1. Always do your preparation.
I think that a big part of the problem for me with this presentation was that I hadn’t written it, or the accompanying slides, and consequently it never really felt natural to me.
My flawed approach was to try to simply familiarize myself with the content provided, and if possible, memorize it. What I should have done was taken some ownership and introduced my own examples and anecdotes.
These give speakers content they can talk about naturally which is a great way of building some confidence and finding their feet in the presentation.
2. Double-check your slides.
The other issue with not writing this presentation was that it came with a number of text heavy slides. Because I was nervous, and not entirely confident with the subject, I felt compelled to read them aloud.
This approach can become a bit of a vicious circle. Reading aloud won’t engage the audience, so they will become restless. The speaker picks up on this and becomes increasingly anxious.
Restrict the amount to text on your slides to a few words or ideas so that you do not become reliant on them. Use them to support what you have to say.
3. Troubleshoot your equipment.
If you are already battling nerves, the last thing you need are technical difficulties. That is just going to compound the situation and add to the stress.
Fiddling about with a USB stick and praying that it would work on the event laptop, while the audience waited for me to get started, did me few favors.
What I should have done was arrive at the venue early and test all the equipment I needed before anyone else got there. That would have enabled me to arrive on the stage, knowing that the audience could hear me and that they would be able to see the slides.
4. Don’t make excuses.
One mistake I didn’t make—but a common foible many communicators come across in presentations—is when the presenter gets up to speak and begins by saying something along the lines of “excuse me if I seem nervous.”
There really is no benefit to advertising your anxiety in this situation. Nerves are actually seldom visible to an audience. Telling them that you are nervous sounds like an excuse and does not create the strong opening impression presenters should be looking for.
5. Remember you are the expert.
At the event where my presentation went down in flames, no one else had a media background and, without sounding boastful, I’m sure no-one else there knew more about the subject than me. That was the whole reason I had been asked to speak.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think like this at the time.
6. Don’t try to be perfect.
Looking back, I think I was afraid to make mistakes—but striving to be perfect is not realistic. Perfect presentations don’t exist.
Everyone makes mistakes in presentations and most of the time they are much more minor than the speaker feels at the time. Often the audience won’t notice them at all.
In fact, inconsequential gaffes can help endear the speaker to the audience.
7. Take care of your mental wellbeing.
Mindfulness feels like it has become a bit of a buzzword and it is one I’m generally reluctant to use. However, I think there is a place for it here because looking back I had lost all sense of perspective with this particular presentation and it had grown in my mind to a much bigger issue than it really was.
What would have happened if it had gone horribly wrong?
I’m not going to recommend yoga and stretching here, but I think there are things I could have done that would have helped with my nerves.
For example, because I got myself into a situation where I pretty much tried to memorize the presentation, I overprepared. The performance became my sole focus, both at work and at home, in the days leading up to the event, but I should have stepped away at regular intervals and done other things.
Even some simple breathing exercises and shoulder rolls immediately before I got started would have helped provide some relaxation.
8. Take time to reflect.
After delivering the presentation, I put it to the back of my mind. I simply didn’t want to think about it anymore and instead tried to make up for several days of nervous fasting by frequenting the event buffet.
In retrospect, that was a mistake.
I think I would have benefited from spending time reflecting on what went well, what could have gone better and really considering whether it had actually been anywhere near as bad as I had imagined.
I should have also asked for some feedback from those in the audience. Spending some time on this would have helped me feel less nervous the next time I came to give a presentation to a similar sized audience.
What are your tricks to avoid nerves when giving a presentation, PR Daily readers?
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