Presentation Anxiety: Tips
A long time ago, I was the perfect example of presentation anxiety. That was nothing too special, as most people have some level of anxiety when it comes to public speaking. However, my job began to require that I give more and more presentations, which was quickly becoming a problem.
I used to rehearse a presentation for days, for hours at home after work, only to deliver another poor performance when the time came. My frustration grew, as failing after putting in genuine effort was something to which I had not grown accustomed.
Obsessing over your slides and memorizing the lines will NOT make a difference.
Finally, I ran out of evenings to rehearse in between the presentations, as I simply had too many presentations to give. Something had to change.
I took a deep breath and did two things:
- For the following month or so, I scheduled all the presentations that I could think of – almost one per day.
- I enrolled in several quick presentation and communication skills courses.
I decided to either learn what I needed to jump this hurdle once and for all, or this job wasn’t going to work out for me.
The tough schedule of planning and practice was challenging, to say the least. I started sleeping less and still barely had enough time to prepare all of the PowerPoint slides that I needed. My focus quickly switched from worrying to surviving.
Attending courses was interesting, but its primary benefit was my increased confidence. The lessons themselves were not magic, but each new “trick” I learned boosted my chances of surviving another day.
The first one of these “tricks” came somewhat embarrassing, though.
It’s About Your Audience
I finally understood that presentations weren’t about the quality of the slides, nor were they about my own anxiety; the most important thing about a presentation is what the audience gets for their time.
The most important thing about a presentation is what the audience gets for their time.
Each person in attendance has given you a half-hour slice of their day, which is no small thing in today’s time-crunched world. They genuinely hope that your presentation will make their investment of time worthwhile. Given that, you must ask yourself, in advance, why they would come. When you find that answer, then arrange or customize your presentation to communicate that precise goal.
And why wait with your point? Tell it immediately!
Start By Stating Your Point
In any form of social interaction, particularly in a presentation or public speaking setting, people will decide whether or not they are interested in listening to you within the first 30 seconds. In other words, make sure to start by explicitly stating the major point of your presentation. This will help you grab your audience’s attention immediately.
There is actually a neat trick to do this effectively.
If you emphasize a single point, it might come across too strong, which can make it seem like you are selling something, so it is better to divide your intro into two main points. To strengthen the delivery, you can gesticulate with your left hand for the first point, but switch to your right hand for the second. These small steps are the perfect start to eventually implementing all that Internet advice about effectively using your body language during presentations.
Go for a strong 30-second introduction.
Memorize these script points for the first 30 seconds. You want to:
- Introduce yourself and tell your audience why you are the perfect person to be giving this presentation.
- Tell them how long your presentation will be.
- Inform them that you will show them point A (raising your left hand) and point B (raising your right hand).
- Take a short pause and quickly work to gain the eye contact of your audience.
That short list represents the template for a perfect 30-second introduction. You have come across strong, but not too strong; you have sparked their interest, but you haven’t actually explained anything yet. If you were right about what they need or what they are looking for, then they are certainly listening now.
Now, it’s time to explain your points.
Don’t Put Everything on Your Slides
If you rarely give presentations, and your biggest worry is simply surviving, then you could write everything on your slides and simply read them. This way, you wouldn’t have to prepare at all, and the potential stress level is considerably lower. The results of this approach are almost always lousy, but at least your delivery is guaranteed. Also, if someone forced you to do a presentation, and you don’t particularly care, then this is a legitimate strategy.
To avoid memorizing the entirety of the text, put visual clues for yourself on the slide.
If you want something more, however, then you should try a different approach.
Each one of your slides should have a good reason for being included in your presentation. It should make a definitive point, in some way. To avoid memorizing the entirety of the text, put visual clues for yourself on the slide. Your clue might be the title itself, one or more of the bullet points, or even an image.
When you display each slide, search for the clues and confidently deliver the point.
Also, don’t worry about forgetting to explain something, because:
- You will be the only one to notice.
- If it raises more questions, then your audience may be even more interested to learn more. Knowledge is power, after all.
Furthermore, including too many details can result in a boring presentation. It’s better to omit a detail or two than risk losing your audience.
Get a Feel for Your Audience
There is almost nothing worse than a boring presentation, so above all else, don’t put your audience to sleep. You want to start and finish energetically, and let the response and vibe of the audience guide you through the rest.
A wise choice is to watch the people in the front rows (or decision makers, if it’s that kind of presentation); basically, they are the least likely people to be there against their will. If they seem eager, then expand on what you are explaining at the moment. If they seem bored, don’t be afraid to skip to the next topic and turn the energy back around.
Gauge your audience and expand on what interests them – or cut a topic short when it makes them bored.
In other words, don’t blindly stick to your script. You are the only person that will be aware of it, so feel free to adjust things as you go along.
The most important example of this adjustment is knowing when to finish.
Don’t Oversell: How to End Your Presentation
You don’t want to come off as an overly eager salesperson who continues trying to persuade you to buy something, even after you have made the decision to purchase the item. Aside from serving no purpose, this approach to presenting can come across as pushy or as a sign of lacking confidence.
In that respect, public speaking is similar to sales. Even when you are not selling an actual product, you are probably promoting or popularizing something: it might be a great new idea, your company, or even yourself.
Watch your audience closely, and if they seem sold on the overall concept, then immediately move to wrap things up. The rest of your presentation wouldn’t serve any real purpose, and people certainly won’t mind if you have taken up less of their time than they expected.
State your message right away, use visual clues and don’t oversell.
To end, take a pause to regain any of the lost attention in the audience. Strong eye contact also helps at this closing step. Repeat your main point(s) from the beginning of your presentation. Be sure to thank your audience, so that they are certain that you’re done.
The only things that can derail you at this point are malicious questions.
Dealing with Nasty Questions
For some types of presentations, destructive questions are rare. This is because people, in general, empathize with you; they want you to succeed. However, sometimes you have to deal with active opposition that is trying to call the legitimacy of your presentation into question and tear it down.
Fortunately, this basic formula helps:
1. While a harmful question is being asked, keep smiling. Make eye contact and walk slowly towards the person asking the question. If this person is not a hardened veteran, he or she will often feel pressured by the attention of both you and the audience, typically causing them to soften their sting. Listen politely until the end and be sure that the person has finished.
2. Then, switch your focus to the rest of the audience, and repeat the question while walking slowly backwards. Repeating the question ensures that everyone has heard it, while also giving you the opportunity to tone it down slightly. For example, you can put the question in slightly more general terms. Don’t overdo this technique, however; you don’t want to raise any objections of oversimplification or inspire mistrust. Also, walking backwards with open body language (arms open with palms up, for example) makes your audience more receptive to your words.
3. Answer your own question, rather than the original, while still looking as open and friendly as possible.
If you want to see an example of this in practice, turn on your TV and find a live show with a guest politician. Politicians are the masters of these arts – their job requires it.
The Complete Formula
The value of the abovementioned advice is that you can apply it right away and start seeing immediate results. I did, and it improved my performance overnight. With enough practice, you could significantly improve your presentation skills simply by following this advice alone.
Here is the simplified list of the crucial take-away points:
- Make it about your audience.
- Begin and end by explicitly stating your points.
- Don’t write everything on your slides; use visual clues instead.
- Don’t oversell; finish when your goal has been achieved.
- Check the infographics I’ve made on presentations.
- Leave a comment, I’ll be glad to know what you think.
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