You have an important presentation coming up. Do you carry on like it’s NBD? Stay cool and calm as ever? MUST BE NICE. For many of us, public speaking can be terrifying. Whether it’s the act of being in front of a group, feeling that your every word and overall intelligence is being scrutinized, or if it’s worrying about appearing visibly nervous that stresses you out, you’re not alone.
My previous job included work in conference production. I watched backstage as speaker after speaker took the stage in front of 600 attendees and bared their life’s work. Some had that special, enviable quality where they spoke as easily as conversing with a close friend. They were comfortable, relaxed, talked like a human. Even funny at times! And spoke off the cuff! Others, however, demonstrated sympathy-inducing shaky voices, trembling hands, and bumbling words. You know what I’m talking about.
When being in the “limelight” or in front of a group doesn’t come naturally, how does one make this experience less harrowing? Specifically in the workplace, how do you prepare for a presentation in a way that will help you be the best version of yourself?
In my work today, I present fairly often in front of groups. I’ve grown to enjoy it - it’s a bit of a rush and it’s a great feeling to share information or insights on a topic you’re passionate about. There’s also the whole ‘lean into what’s uncomfortable’ component that’s rewarding. In any case, here are a handful of tips I’ve picked up along the way on how I prepare for these moments — a combination of my own learnings and advice shared by bonafide experts. What else would you add?
- Prep thy notes
I’m lucky that my best friend is a presentation pro. I owe these next two tips to her. Print out a version of your slides with room for notes. On each slide, write down the key bullets or stats that you want to make sure you say. Sometimes I’ll use different colored ink or will circle certain words to ensure I hit upon them. It sounds basic but it’s helpful to not have to glance up at the screen for your cue. (Sidenote: Don’t read your slides.)
- Practice out loud
Practicing in your head is one thing. It always seems to sound how you want it to. But once you open your mouth and start speaking, it can be a different story. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of practicing your presentation out loud. If there are certain phrases that flow nicely or strategic segues between slides that you come across, write them on your slide notes. If you’re nervous and drawing blanks, these are your lifeline.
- Practice, practice, practice makes for less anxiety
You’ve heard Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. When it comes to presentations, the more you practice (out loud), the more likely your words will flow and you’ll get in a groove. Your presentation will start to become second nature, and you might even start to feel yourself speaking confidently and animatedly.
- Know your opener
As this article states, memorize your first three lines. I love this advice. Those first few moments are the toughest. Make it easier by knowing exactly what you’re going to say to kick things off.
- Prep for Q&A
To try to avoid being caught off guard, I try to anticipate questions the group might ask. Whether it’s related to research methods, key dates, stats, or teams/individuals consulted during the project, I write these down on my slide notes so I have it handy. Being able to provide a statistic as part of your response is a good look.
- Make eye contact
If you’ve taken any public speaking classes, you’ve heard this one before. But it really humanizes the room and helps you to connect with the people in it. Simon Sinek, who boasts one of the most watched TED talks (and happens to be an introvert), explains, “It’s like you’re having a conversation with your audience. You’re not speaking at them, you’re speaking with them." There’s also something calming about looking someone in the eye when you’re on stage or in front of a room.
- Slooooooow it down
Without thinking, one can tend to speakveryfastwhennervous. Speaking slowly gives you a chance to gather your thoughts, prepare for what’s next, and it also helps you appear calmer than you might feel. Not to mention it helps your audience understand/absorb what you’re saying. In the conference world, you can almost see attendees lean in to hear what speakers are saying when they speak slowly.
- Lay off the caffeine
If you tend to tremble or get shaky before presentations, skip that second cup of coffee.
- Exercise before taking the ‘stage’
Welcome that flood of serotonin with open arms. This article states it best: “Cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands when you're anxious or stressed. High levels of cortisol limit your creativity and your ability to process complex information; when you're buzzed on cortisol, it's almost impossible to read and react to the room. The easiest way to burn off cortisol is to exercise.”