One of my clients recently told me about a recurring nightmare: She was presenting to 300 top executives, and suddenly she saw herself fainting. I asked her, “Why do you think you’re having that dream?”
She tells me, “Because I actually fainted. How can I get beyond that image of myself?”
It happens. You can be the best public speaker in the world but have a bad day or two when everything goes wrong. When that happens to you, it can feel like nothing you do will make up for what you just experienced. But there is a way to bounce back with confidence and composure–here’s how.
No, I don’t mean, “Take a big breath.” You’ve probably heard that countless times, and you might have found that it doesn’t do you any good. When you take a big breath, you hold it, you freeze, and your anxiety builds. That’s not going to help.
Instead, try letting your stomach out and exhale to a four-count, slowly. Then do that again, but gentler, releasing about 10-15% of your oxygen. Initially, it won’t feel like you’re breathing, but the air will automatically come in through your nose, and your body will respond naturally. Eventually, you’ll start to feel in control of your breathing–and you’ll feel yourself transition from a state of fear to a natural flow.
Find a rhythm
Picture this: It’s a beautiful, sunny day and you’re walking along the beach, up a mountain path or across an open field. You’re not in a hurry to go anywhere, and you’re moving steadily. It’s comfortable and calming.
Direct your mind to this feeling when you discover yourself needing to untie that knot in your stomach. Not only will this help you with your nerves, but you’ll find that it becomes easier to gain some control when you’re speaking. Imagine that you’re talking while walking, and you’re letting your movements drive your language. That means speaking in short sentences, and deliberately establish a consistent rhythm in your speech. Once you become aware of this, it will be easier to emerge from your looming cloud of self-doubt.
Maintain eye contact
When you screw up, you’ll probably want to do anything but look at your audience. But it’s crucial that you maintain eye contact with them–in five-second intervals–if you want their attention back. Remember, you don’t want to be looking up, down, and around in an erratic scan. You’ll just get lost in your thoughts, and as you drift from one image to another, you’ll find that your anxiety will start to build. If you maintain regular eye contact, you can direct those thoughts to where you want them to go. Delivering a talk is more than mind to mouth. Your eyes are a part of your whole speaking self, and when everything is in sync, you can appear powerful, commanding, and compelling to your audience.
Tell a story
After you’ve gathered your composure, it’s time to tell a story. Not a story that you’ve read in a book, or one that you heard from someone else. You need to share a personal experience; a moment that was memorable, and that you can see with your mind’s eye. By visualizing how you’re going to tell the story, you’ll find it easier to speak with natural expression and assurance.
Just make sure that you don’t write out your story word for word before you give your talk. When you do this, you’ll end up focusing on the words that you wrote, rather than the narrative. You need to concentrate on the story itself, because if you do this–you’ll appear more engaged to your audience, you’ll be less paranoid about stumbling over your words, and as a result, you probably won’t. Powerful stories come from the heart, not a piece of paper.
Speaking to an audience won’t always be a smooth affair. There will be days when all your knowledge and practice goes out the window, and you face a nightmare that you didn’t anticipate. This doesn’t make you a lousy public speaker, it just means that you are having an unlucky day. To regain your confidence, follow these four steps, and a mishap shouldn’t stop you from delivering a memorable presentation.