A few days before I have to talk in front a lot of people, I get this queasy feeling in my stomach that won’t go away. I don’t want to eat. I just want to cancel so I don’t have to deal with the stress. My hands get sweaty before I get on stage. I feel like I want to run away. And then I walk out there, do what I have to do and everything works out fine. I’m usually even pretty exhilarated by the time I get done.
By now I’ve done hundreds of these kinds of things. I’ve flown out to pitch Fortune 100 companies. I’ve negotiated with C-level executives who are decades older than me. I’ve done two or three press interviews in one day. I’ve even done live TV. By now I feel pretty comfortable with (almost) all of it. And I’m getting a lot better at it.
As someone who would rather be reading a book at home than running around on stage, it took me a long time to figure how to give a good presentation despite being nervous. Here are some techniques that I used to get over the public-speaking hump.
You Can Either Spend Your Life Running From It or Face it Head On
The first thing to realise is that if you plan on living a successful life, you’re going to have to speak in public. And you’re going to have to do it a lot. Even though you might be tempted to come up with an excuse for why you can’t speak at one particular event, what happens when the next one rolls around? If you’re doing your job right those opportunities are going to keep coming up. Do you really want to run from this all of your life?
You can either go through the anxious process of deliberately trying to avoid something that’s not going to go away. Or you can accept it, and understand that it’s only going to get better if you face up to it. And know that the earlier you start doing it the better, because the longer you wait the more pressure you’ll feel.
Have a Script, but Don’t Write it Down
What’s everyone’s greatest fear about public speaking? That they’ll get up on stage and forget what to say. That their mind will go blank, and they’ll stumble and mumble and totally screw the whole thing up.
To compensate for this what most people do is write a script. If you just write it down and memorise it then you won’t have to think on your feet, and your speech will just be muscle memory. It will be like popping a CD into a stereo and pressing play. I don’t recommend this approach. When you actually write a speech word for word then you end up trying to memorise it down to the letter. This makes your delivery feel stiff and lifeless.
Instead, what I like to do is put together a PowerPoint with only one or two lines of text per slide. Then I immediately start to practice. Instead of just reading off the bullet points, I elaborate on each one and fill out the talk off the top of my head. On the first run through the presentation is really rough and broken up because I don’t yet have a good handle on what I want to say. I run through it again and again over the course of a few hours. I take breaks every few sessions to let things sink in and percolate in my head.
By the end, I’ve basically memorised the presentation. I know what’s on every slide, I know how to transition between slides, and I never have to pause or look ahead to know what I’m going to talk about next. The general flow of the talk is perfectly memorised, but the exact way I talk about each bullet point changes slightly each time (because it’s never written down). I like this approach because it gives you the benefit of having your presentation in muscle memory without the stiffness of having memorised it word for word.
The Sharing Mindset
Whenever I feel uncomfortable about a presentation, it’s invariably because there’s a slide with something on it that I don’t really believe, or that I’m putting in to achieve a certain result or reaction from the audience. Sometimes I get stuck on phrasing things a certain way so that my listeners will think a certain thing. A lot of times, I’ve found this happens when you practice your presentation for someone else and they say, “Hmm you don’t want to say it like that because insert esoteric misunderstanding that a low percentage of your audience might have.”
My advice, especially when you’re starting out, is to ignore things like this. The most important thing is to be comfortable with your material, and to feel like you’re genuinely sharing how you feel about whatever subject it is you’re talking about. The last thing you want to do is to be constantly on edge, trying to make sure that you phrase things in just the right way. When you let go of the minutiae, and just try to honestly share what you know it lowers the stress level of a talk immensely.
Be Careful with PowerPoint
There are some times when you’re going to need a PowerPoint. Sometimes it’s nice as a security blanket so you know you won’t forget what you’re going to talk about. It’s especially useful when you’re giving certain kinds of presentations because it allows your audience to take notes more easily.
But the worst thing you can possibly do is put 10,000 bullet points on each slide in 10 point font and then proceed to read each line word for word. No one is going to be able to see what’s on the slide. And not only are they not going to see it, it’s going to look so monotonous that they’re not going to care about what you’re saying.
Focus your slides. Put a little bit of information on each one, and make the font size is huge. That will keep people from squinting, and make them more engaged.
Get the Worst One Out of the Way
I read a Seth Godin blog post a few months ago called Worst one ever. It was really helpful when I was prepping to do the live TV spot. Here’s what he says:
“40 years ago today was my first bout of speaking in front of an audience. (And as I remember it, I approached it as a fight, not an opportunity.) I was distracted, nervous and not particularly well received. It was an epic fail. Friends and relatives agreed that I wasn’t engaged or engaging, certainly a performance not to be repeated. I ignored the part about not repeating it, but I definitely learned some valuable lessons about confidence and engagement. Just about anything worth doing is worth doing better, which means, of course, that (at least at first) there will be failure. That’s not a problem (in the long run), it’s merely a step along the way. If you’re not willing to get your ‘worst one ever’ out of the way, how will you possibly do better than that?”
The point is that you can’t get better if you don’t have something to improve on. If your first talk is bad, it doesn’t mean that you’re a “bad” speaker. It just means that you have no experience and that you should spend time working on ways to get better. In the worst case scenario, you got your most awful speaking experience out of the way. Things only get easier afterwards.
The Only Cure for Insecurity is Experience
After a blog post full of tips to help you feel better about public speaking, my final advice is that mental tricks to make yourself feel more comfortable only go so far when it comes to public speaking. Ultimately, the only cure for insecurity is experience. You just have to get out there and make a fool of yourself a few times before you get really comfortable.
And you should start now. Because you’re either going to face up to it and get better at it, or run from it your whole life.
Public speaking for introverts [Dan Shipper]
Dan Shipper is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania where he majors in philosophy. He’s currently working on a startup called Firefly that does cobrowsing for customer support. He can be found on Twitter at @danshipper or on his blog.
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