Tomorrow’s the big day. You have a presentation that you must do. You can’t get out of it. You toss and turn all night, dreading the coming dawn like a condemned man waiting for the sound of the tumbrel wheels on the cobblestones outside your cell.
Okay, I am being a bit dramatic but according to surveys, many people are terrified of public speaking and would rather die than stand up in front of a group and say anything. If you are feeling nervous at the mere idea of addressing a group, you are not alone.
That said, knowing you are not alone does not help you when you are standing up there, well… alone baring your soul to those who may or may not be sympathetic to your cause. Stage fright is a big deal. I have been a musician,dancer and instructor for decades and in the beginning I had a huge problem with stage fright. It was so bad that I actually would not remember what happened on stage. Since my chosen profession had a lot to do with performing, I had no choice but to try and figure out a way to handle it.
As a performer, (and public speaking is performing) you are only as good as how well you perform. Nobody cares how great you sound in the studio or your living room. Am I nervous when I perform? Sure! Performing is like getting ready to ride a roller coaster. You get nervous, you master your fear, you get out there and you pull it off. Then, you get in line for your next ride because the last one was just so awesome!
Even the pros are still a little bit nervous just before they go onstage. Thinking that performing or presenting can be done without any emotional reaction is unrealistic. So how do these pros make it look so easy?
1. They prepare their content well.
The point of speaking to a group is to get your own personal communication across to more than one person. Your message is of paramount importance. It must be concise, presented in a proper sequence and easy to understand and communicate.
To start, choose your overall message. Write it out and ensure that it can be said in a line or two. If you cannot do this, your message is too vague and you will ramble. Don’t try to address too much in one presentation. Your one message should have offshoots but make sure each one leads back to and reaffirms your primary message.
Start by writing an outline of your presentation with a statement of your message first. Save this to refer to when you are presenting. Like a short story, your presentation should have an introduction, a body and an ending. This is the accepted form of communication. Lacking this, your presentation will not make sense.
Make sure the parts of your presentation are in a chronological sequence that can be mentally followed by your audience without effort. If things get complex, make sure you have graphics or sketches so your audience can SEE what you are talking about.
If your presentation is out of sequence or hard to envision, or too complicated, you will force your audience to skid off into a mental ditch, and you will lose them.
Look over your outline from the point of view of your least experienced or educated audience member. Make sure it is understandable to them and does not leave them with more questions than answers.
Ensure that every moment of your presentation provides your listener with some valuable takeaway.
My favorite author, P.G. Wodehouse (the genius who invented Jeeves and Wooster), had a standard that he used when writing his brilliant novels. He said that he was never finished with a work until every single line in it had some sort of entertainment value. I picked up one of his novels and by golly he was right! He achieved this standard consistently and as a result has a huge following decade after decade. His novels are classics.
Knowing this, apply this standard to every one of your talking points. Eliminate any useless fluff that does not educate and/or entertain. Eliminate anything that does not pertain to your message.
If you use a word that your audience may not know, define it for them. Steer clear of acronyms and code words. These are the black ice of a presentation and are guaranteed to land your hapless audience in a mental ditch. You will be chattering on and moving forward and they will be lying there twisted and crushed and bleeding radiator fluid. (more drama)
2. They drill, drill drill!
Once you have done the above, put yourself in front of a mirror with everything you will be using to present or perform. Gather together your graphics. If you are presenting in high heels, put those on. In short, make it as close to the actual presentation as you can. Any little unresolved detail that steals your attention on the day of your presentation will distract your audience.
For performing artists, this applies equally. Rehearsing in sneakers will not prepare you for shoes that hurt after ten minutes on stage. Tight jackets, or sleeves that get in the way are all distractions for you and your audience, not to mention the dreaded faux leather (vinyl) pants that make you sweat like a Gorgonzola after two minutes under hot lights.
Set all of this up and drill your presentation in front of a mirror. Do not criticize your personal appearance on those things you cannot correct. By this I mean quit telling yourself that your nose is too big, you are too fat or thin or short etc. This accomplishes nothing positive.
Criticize only the points you can correct immediately. Adjust your presentation as you go. When you have done this several times you will have your presentation in its final form.
When you think you have drilled enough, drill some more. You will be amazed at how much calmer you feel walking into a stressful situation knowing without a doubt that you are fully prepared.
3. They know the curve of emotion that occurs during a performance.
Understand that just before you go on and the first few minutes of your performance are the scariest. Once you are through this, the rest is cake.
While you are waiting for your entrance, don’t try to talk yourself out of your nervousness.This only serves to fix your attention more solidly on the dreaded event making it worse. Instead, unfix your attention by looking at a point later that day. Picture yourself back in your office afterward feeling calm and relaxed. Picture the coming weekend with your kids doing something fun. Picture going to a movie. In short, create future pleasant experiences and these will pull you through the dreaded present.
If you have adequately drilled, there is nothing more you can do to ensure a great performance. At this point it is best to trust yourself and know you will pull it off rather than go over and over your presentation in your mind. I have done this many times and it was never productive. Instead it created more problems.
Once you get onstage it may be tempting to notice that your hands are shaking. Okay, so they are shaking. Who cares? Your message is more important than shaking hands. Focus on your message. The attention of your audience will be on what YOUR attention is on. If you focus on shaking hands, they will suddenly notice them. If you focus on a quavery voice, they will notice that too. If these things occur but you continue to focus on your message, they will get it.
Ensure that your words reach the audience by deciding that your words will reach the back wall or a point beyond your audience. This way, listeners will not be yelling “Speak Up!” when you start your presentation. If this occurs, it distracts your audience and gives the impression that you have lost control of the presentation.
If you have an audience member who insists on interrupting you or heckling you in a presentation, it is perfectly okay to politely ask them to refrain from interrupting you. It is rude to interrupt and there are rare audience members who do try to take control of an event to the detriment of you and your audience. You are responsible for the outcome of the event. You are the one who prepared and drilled. It is not okay to allow someone to take control of your forum. It is okay to impose some slight discipline on your audience and in fact, those who came to receive your message will appreciate it.
It can be as simple as pointing out that others might not have the same questions and that you can see this person afterward, or stating that questions will be addressed at the end of the presentation.
Once you get through the first few minutes you will notice that it gets easier. Then follow your outline as rehearsed and you will be great.
4. They gauge the overall emotion of the audience.
Is your audience enthusiastic? Conservative? Antagonistic? Apathetic?
Find the prevalent emotion and start speaking in that emotion. Practice varying these emotions in your rehearsal. When I was playing in a club band, each club drew different people in different emotional tones but one tone was always prevalent. Our band leader knew this and chose songs appropriately.
Biker bars tended to be a bit aggressive and somewhat angry. We chose harder rock and rebellious songs. Church gigs, of course would be a completely different mindset. For these events we would choose feel good songs.
It is best if you practice this to the point where you can do it on the fly. This way you are sure of engaging your audience from the outset.
5. They do a lot of performing/speaking.
One thing I constantly tell my students is that performance is its own skill. The only way to get good at it is to do it. Unfortunately if you crash and burn, you do so in front of people BUT it doesn’t kill you and I would wager that most public speakers have had some pretty epic crashes and burns. I hate to say it but it is part of the game. If you give up after one crash and burn, you have lost.
I recall one event in which I was performing as a belly dancer. I was getting ready to put a lit candle on my head and do a candle dance. Just as I was lifting the candle, hot wax spilled barely missing my bare shoulder. The audience gasped and I knew that if I did not handle the remaining wax, they would be nervous throughout the performance and I would lose them, not to mention that I might get burned.
This was not the message I wanted to convey so I danced over to a nearby plastic plant and dumped the wax into it. I then put my finger to my lips indicating that this was our little secret, just me and the entire audience would know. They laughed and the tension was diffused. I still watch that video and laugh my butt off. I don’t know who owned that plant. Happily candle wax does not kill plastic.
While this was a happy ending, I had had many spectacular crash/burns prior to that point. Once you drag yourself out of the figurative ditch and seek emergency medical care for the umpteenth time, you can look back and do what my husband calls a “postmortem” which means an assessment of where you went wrong and how to avoid painful missteps in the future.
5. They have solutions for the symptoms of nervousness.
“The only thing to fear is fear itself!” Thank you Winston Churchill! He must have been talking about public speaking. I’ll bet he observed the following tactics:
Q: How can I handle my voice if it shakes?
A: Practice breathing and do vocal exercises for singers.
Q: What do I do with my hands if they are shaking and the audience then feels uncomfortable?
A: Hide them or hold them. If you have this problem do not incorporate into your presentation anything that will make this noticeable. Avoid holding single sheets of paper that will appear to take off like spastic wings if your hand starts to shake.
Q: Where do I look?
A: I look at a point beyond the audience when singing but if speaking, I look at various people in the room just as if I am talking to them alone. You do not have to make a point of looking at everyone. There are many schools of thought on this but I say do what feels natural. Trying to contrive a “natural method of speaking” doesn’t work. One motto I love is”If yer thinkin’ yer stinkin’.” This was told to me by a fine musician as he discussed the art of performing. Don’t think! Do!
You will notice as a speaker that there are audience members who are more alive and engaged than others. I talk to them.
Speaking is a two way street. If I get positive feedback from someone in the audience they get rewarded with my attention.
6. They count each performance as an opportunity to hone their performance skills.
Each onstage experience makes you better no matter how it goes. Okay, so dumping candle wax into someone else’s plastic ficus was not my idea of a great performance. I had another performance outdoors where I stepped onstage and the wind blew out the candle immediately. Wow! Impressive! I can dance with an unlit candle on my head! It was supposed to be an impressive display of skill and ended up a comedy routine.
What was my Learning Takeaway? Don’t do a candle dance in high winds and dump your wax before you go onstage (or ensure that there are strategically placed plastic flora at every turn).
You will no doubt run into different and equally amusing situations and you will make your own list of Learning Takeaways. Heck! You might come up with enough of them that you could write a book!
Speaking and performing are very special skills. When you master (notice I did not say “if”?) you will wield the power to communicate broadly. You will be able to get your message across easily.
For more tips, please refer to my article “How to Give a Killer Presentation When You Feel Like Dying” right here on Lifehack.org.
Good luck! Write me and let me know how it goes!
Featured photo credit: http://www.Stockpic.com via Stokpic.com