A case of public speaking nervousness
It was a regular workday for Tom. Things were going well for him and his career. Shortly after 5pm his boss called to ask him for a simple favor: to deliver one of their standard corporate presentations in front of 30 sales and marketing people from a different business unit the next day at 1pm. Most people dread presenting and so did Tom. He cancelled his get-together for the evening and didn’t go to bed until after midnight. He tossed and turned in anticipation of the next day. At 4am he finally gave up, showered and continued with his preparation. His public speaking nervousness continued to rise throughout the morning. His girl-friend tried to re-assure him. He knew the subject extremely well, after all. Shortly after 1pm, disaster struck. He had just started the presentation when he had a complete black-out. 29 people stared at him with anticipation. He couldn’t find his words, the world started spinning around him and he passed out.
The stage fright phenomenon
What happened to Tom isn’t unusual. It happens all the time. Most people hate presenting in front of a group of any size. But it doesn’t have to end in disaster. And it shouldn’t! Presentation skills are extremely important today. We are required to present more often that we think: team meetings, town halls, conferences… There are a lot of opportunities to shine but also to mess things up.
It is a well-known secret that even famous actors, performers and singers deal with the phenomenon of stage fright. There is no way around it. But it doesn’t have to be a horror experience. Instead, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences professional live offers.
“The fact is, people do judge by appearances. If you have great ideas but present them poorly, many people will fail to see their worth. You’ll be beaten by somebody whose ideas are less worthy than yours, but who presented them superlatively.”, Simon Reynolds.
Advice for public speaking nervousness
For the past four years, I have frequently presented to larger audiences of up to a few thousand people. Those occasions have taught me a lot. But let me tell you: regardless of how often I do this – I am usually nervous. Here are a few things that have helped me stay calm and relaxed. Many websites and books will tell you about breathing techniques and such. That sort of stuff puts a band-aid on a deep cut. I doesn’t help you heal.
- Nervousness = Ability to perform: Being nervous helps us perform extremely well. The reason is that our brains release adrenaline which in turn allows us to focus and to perform. Just think back to a time when you achieved something amazing (maybe a test, race, tournament). Chances are you were super nervous but suddenly your adrenaline kicked in. So the first thing to do is to just accept the fact that you will feel those butterflies in your stomach. Knowing that this is part of deal and that this helps me has made a world of difference.
- Prepare: Preparation is key. For one thing, you should know your content well. If you do not know what you are talking about, you have every right to be nervous and maybe you shouldn’t even present to begin with. But preparation also requires you to have the equipment ready and primed. I always make sure to charge my laptop and iPad before any presentation. Also, I try to show up at a location early enough to test everything. It sounds so simple, but I have seen many people who get frazzled by beeping laptops, connectivity issues and such. So, do yourself a favor and prepare well.
- Content: Invest time in developing your content. Simply downloading any cool presentation from the corporate knowledge center will not help. Every audience is different. If you invest time in understanding their needs and tailoring the content will help you tremendously. I have had several occasions where I developed presentations that I was really excited to deliver. The content was that cool. If you are happy and familiar with the content, you will be in a much better place.
- Mingle: We are usually most comfortable with friends and family. Crowds of people that we do not know are scary on the other hand. I therefore try to mingle with people before a presentation. It allows me to get to know them, learn about their expectations and to also get some distraction.
- Humor: Humor is the best medicine. I personally love to joke around before speaking engagements. It helps me clear my mind and it helps with getting into a positive attitude. And that attitude is extremely important.
- Hidden agenda: Part of the reason we experience public speaking nervousness is the fear of making mistakes. But guess what – as the presenter, we have a serious competitive advantage: Nobody besides you knows what is supposed to happen. Let’s assume that you were planning on saying X before saying Y, but you end up starting with Y and then finishing with X. The audience won’t notice and they won’t care. You are the only one who knows! And even if you make a mistake, so what? Stuff happens and nobody expects you to be perfect. So, use that knowledge to your advantage: Only you know what is supposed to happen. That insight alone can really calm you down.