Mark Twain once said, “There are two kinds of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” In other words, no matter how seasoned or “under-seasoned” you are when it comes to making presentations, there is going to be some particular audience, some particular topic, some particularly poor timing or something else in particular that is going to give you some sleepless nights and a queasy stomach in the morning.
I know this firsthand. I've been a professional speaker and communications coach for over 20 years, so when a client of mine offered me the incredible opportunity to present a keynote address on customer service to more than 2,000 financial-service professionals, nobody was more surprised than I was to hear these words leak out of my mouth, “Uh, no thanks.”
Was it the topic? Nope—I know customer service in my sleep. Was it the audience? No, I had plenty of experience working with financial service professionals. Was it the prep time? Hardly. I had six months' advance notice.
What was it? It was the fact that I was used to speaking to groups of a few dozen to a few hundred people, and the idea of speaking to thousands felt overwhelming. Impossible. Nauseating.
Of course, I ended up accepting the assignment (“I was just joking with you,” I lied). And the feedback was excellent (she added, humbly). But the most important takeaway I got from that experience is that Mark Twain had it right: Everyone has his or her own special source of stress when it comes to speaking in public.
It doesn’t matter if you’re presenting to two people or to 2,000 people: When presentation anxiety strikes, you need some strategies to get you out of your own head and on to the stage with confidence, polish, and professionalism. And I don’t know about you, but the old adage “picture them in their underwear” doesn’t cut it for me. In fact, I can’t think of too many things that would make me more nervous than imagining the human resources director crashing our “underwear only” meeting.
In James L. Brooks’ Oscar-nominated film Broadcast News, Albert Brooks’s neurotic newscaster (who suffered from a drenching case of on-air flop sweat) asked, "Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?”
Until that happens, here are three better strategies for managing your anxiety when it’s time for you to take the stage:
1. Exercise that morning.
For those people who consider public speaking a stressful activity, you’re in luck: According to Michael Hopkins, a graduate student at Dartmouth’s Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory, “the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms.” Rather than use the morning of your big presentation to ruminate and freak yourself out, spend at least a half hour working out. Whether you go for a brisk walk, do Crossfit, or take a Zumba class, the release of serotonin (aka the “happy hormone”) that results from exercise will flood you with positive feelings for your presentation.
But what if the only thing you hate more than speaking in public is going to the gym? Then try other forms of exertion—anything that raises your heart rate, and gets you flushed and sweaty. You can even “exert yourself” with a partner. Wink wink.
2. Memorize your first three lines.
The hardest part for most public speakers is actually getting started. You’re now trying to manage your anticipatory anxiety (planning what could go wrong in the future) with your situational anxiety (experiencing what may going wrong right now). Short-circuit your monkey mind by memorizing the first three lines of your presentation. This will shift your brain out of panic mode and into memory-retrieval mode. And so that you don’t add memory anxiety to your list of concerns, make sure that you have practiced saying your first three lines out loud several times.
And what about “Hello everyone—thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here” as an intro? It doesn’t work. In order for you to use your introductory sentences to strategically catapult yourself over your opening jitters, you need to prepare something that brings energy to yourself, to the audience, and to the presentation. Share a short personal story, a brief commentary on a recent, relevant headline, or a potent quotation. (I often begin my presentation skills training with my favorite Mark Twain one!)
Worried about politeness? Save your greetings and thank-you’s for your second paragraph. At that point, you will be warmed up, in your groove and will have the audience impressed with an opening (and a speaker) who is more interesting than they expected.
3. Plan a dialogue rather than a monologue.
Which would you rather do: make a presentation in front of a group of people or engage in a conversation with a group of people? Unless you struggle with social anxiety in general (a topic for another time), chances are, you would prefer the latter. And guess what? So would your audience. Most of us would rather be engaged with the topic and the speaker rather than be expected to keep our opinions and contributions to ourselves. Rather than worrying how you will memorize all of your content, deliver it flawlessly and remember to breathe. Build in breaks for yourself that also allow your audience to share a role in the presentation. Plan to speak for the first 30 seconds to one minute on your own, and then ask the audience a question that requires a response, take an informal opinion poll, or show a quick, relevant video and get some feedback.
This will give your audience the opportunity to engage with and better retain the information, and will give you a chance to breathe, have a sip of water, look at your notes, and gather your thoughts for the next chunk of information you need to deliver until the next audience-oriented break.
It will even give you just enough time to celebrate the fact that you made it through the first minute without passing out.
—Deborah Grayson Riegel is a communication and behavior expert, and is the president of Elevated Training Inc. and MyJewishCoach.com. She is the author of "Oy Vey! Isn't a Strategy: 25 Solutions for Personal and Professional Success."
[Image: Flickr user Mc-Q]