If just the thought of giving a presentation in front of a group is enough to make you break out in hives, you’re not alone.
In fact [tweet bird=yes]Americans’ biggest fear isn’t snakes, heights or even clowns—it’s public speaking.[/tweet]
Yet presentations, whether to a small team or an audience of 500, are a fact of corporate life. Most presentations inhabit the territory somewhere between a report (yawn….) and an interesting story. The best include both story and information, although to mix the two successfully depends on the topic and the audience.
Here are some strategies to lessen your anxiety, and help you make presentations that are engaging, informative and unforgettable.
- Be focused. Everyone dreads a meandering, rambling presentation, so even before you start writing down what you will say, outline the structure of your talk so that it’s logical and easy to follow. Without that, you’ll lose your audience from the get-go.
- Think about your audience. Make sure you’ve researched who will be watching your presentation, whether it’s a few people in a boardroom or a crowd of hundreds at an industry conference. Ask yourself what problem does this group want you to help them solve and then think about how best to describe ways to do that. Try to personalize the presentation by including information about what works for you. That creates a link between you and the audience and helps keep them engaged.
- Memorize, but improvise too. Memorize your script and put the key points on note cards. Memorizing what you want to say will lead to a more fluid and personal delivery than if you just read from a script. Because reading a script makes the delivery stiffer, it also distances you from the audience and that can cause you to lose the intimacy you want. Memorizing also gives you the flexibility to improvise a little, especially if you’re giving it multiple times.
- Go slow and don’t fidget. Pause after making each point and look at one member of the audience to see from their face that they have gotten the point. Then you can move onto the next one. Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference, says a big mistake he sees in rehearsals for talks is that people move their bodies too much, swaying from side to side, or shifting their weight from one leg to another. Although it’s natural to move when you’re nervous it’s also distracting, and can make a speaker seem weak, he says, so be conscious of keeping your lower body motionless and rely on hand gestures for emphasis.
- Rehearse on video. Video yourself giving the talk and work to eliminate any “uhh’s” or “umm’s”, as well as any fidgeting or physical ticks you notice. Pay attention to your diction, the volume of your voice and where your eyes are focused.
- Tell a good story. We all love a good story, and although not all presentations lend themselves to this, many do. Think about taking your audience on a journey, one that will ultimately lead them to take some kind of action. Stories create an emotional connection to your audience—the more personal and authentic, the more powerful the response.
- Tell it well. The media you use to illustrate your points—whether that’s PowerPoint, Google Docs Presentation, a white board, videos—are great when used correctly, but when overused or misused, they can just wind up as distractions. Even worse, they may actually upstage you, and the last thing you want is for your audience to feel they might have been better off if you’d just emailed them the slides. Your job is to be an entertaining and dynamic presenter, so be excited about the material, use lots of inflection and whatever you do, don’t drone on in a dull monotone. If you’ve practiced, memorized your talk and know your key points well, your presentation will be polished and engaging.