Messing up a presentation doesn’t just happen on its own. You have to do something to screw up. Maybe you psych yourself out about the consequences of failure. Maybe you imagine everyone’s there to tear you apart as soon as you finish, so you mumble your words and try to rush off stage.
Self-sabotage is rarely an art, and frequently a natural impulse. It takes patience and practice to wean ourselves off it. But one counterintuitive strategy can help.
Most of us are unaware of the ways we trip ourselves up in high-pressure situations like delivering major presentations. A great way to learn what they are is thinking about what you’d have to do to make sure you mess things up. You can play this psychological game on your own, or with friends or family.
The objective is to examine precisely what it is that you’ve been afraid to look at without all the pressure of getting it right. Once you know, it’s a lot easier to avoid the things that are most likely to cause you to stumble. The alternative approach can suddenly seem much closer to hand.
These are two of the most common ways to fumble a big performance:
What can I focus on that will take me out of the moment?
Great question! I’m glad you asked. Being “in the moment” means paying attention to your surroundings and your message. The opposite of that is paying attention to yourself.
Thinking about yourself can take many forms, all of which can help you fail to be present with your audience. You might think about how nervous you are–“My voice is shaking and my hands are clammy”–or what your audience thinks of you–“Oh gosh, what do they think of me!?”
It might not be so obvious that worry about how you’re perceived is an example of being self-focused. Surely how you’re viewed will impact how well listeners receive your message, right? But if you’re fixated on what audience members are thinking about you, then you aren’t thinking about them.
Why this helps to take you out of the moment is that, as William James taught us, we can really only have one conscious idea at a time. In the case of presenting, it means that if you’re entirely, consciously focused on yourself, you’re not consciously focused on your audience. Being present–and “in the moment”–means fixing all of your attention there. Instead, consider your audience’s needs, their desire to learn, and how well they understand your message.
What’s more, the only real way to shift that focus is by replacement. If you want to stop thinking about something (like yourself), simply trying not to won’t work. Research shows that attempting to not think about an idea only increases how much you think about it. We activate the neural circuitry supporting the exact ideas we want to bar from our minds in the very effort to bar them.
So redirect your attention to something useful instead–like trying to assess whether your audience has understood you in the ways you’d like them to.
Now that I know how to completely lose focus on the audience and worry only about myself, how can I then alienate everyone who’s come to listen to me when it’s time for Q&A?
I love the direction of your inquiry. Now you’re really getting into next-level failure! Nothing makes an audience member turn against you faster than making them feel stupid. The options available to you are bountiful.
Imagine that an audience member raises their hand and asks you to explain something you just finished explaining. Try this. Flash your eyes around the room to see if others agree that this is a profoundly annoying thing to ask. Then start by saying, with a little hesitation in your voice–as if to imply, “Seriously?“–“Like I just said . . . “
Let’s take an emotionally charged example. Perhaps you’re a doctor speaking about vaccines, and an audience member asks whether vaccines harm children. To make sure your message in no way expands that person’s thinking in any productive way, paste on a condescending smile, as close to a sneer as you can manage, roll your eyes, and inform them that they’re an ignorant fear mongerer, and move on. That way you’ll have inspired a nice chunk of your audience to utterly disregard your message and grow more opposed to your point of view.
This is an extreme and rather obvious example, of course, but it points to something many of us can do much less intentionally when we present our ideas. People care deeply about being shamed in front of others, and genuinely want to be listened to.
Sometimes we overzealously promote our own ideas, and anything that sounds remotely like a challenge can push us off-balance. Without even feeling like we’re being defensive, patronizing, or rude, many of us can come off sounding that way, thus alienating listeners without meaning to or realizing it.
Some questions you’ll receive as a speaker can seem ignorant or hostile–and some actually are–but most are motivated at some level by a desire to make sense of what you’ve said.
Look every questioner in the eye while they’re speaking, give them a chance to make their point, make sure you understand it, and treat each question as worthy of a response–especially those that you feel aren’t. Always respond with your honest perspective. This isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to win skeptics and opponents over to your side.
Or, just have fun seeing how much of a complete disaster you can make of your next presentation. You’ll probably learn the same things you can by doing this exercise, only with all the real-world fallout.