In college I was terrified of being called on during class discussions. In grad school, I would be a nervous wreck before presentations, even in small seminars. It didn’t get much better until I figured out a preparation process and an approach to presentations that worked for me. Probably the biggest thing is just doing more presentations in general to become more practiced and comfortable. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to gain experience. I still get nervous, maybe more than others and especially if it’s a big deal or a big crowd, and I don’t think that will ever go away. But I’m no longer terrified because I have a routine that, when followed, allows me to be far more comfortable and typically do a reasonably good job. Here’s the set of steps I take to prepare for a big presentation.
Step 1. Build a solid PowerPoint (or similar) presentation. I could do a whole post on this piece of the puzzle but there are plenty of others who have already written about it and know way more than I do about how to construct a good “deck” as they’re called in the business world. I have to admit that I’m hopelessly addicted to PowerPoint. If I’m presenting there had better be a projector and a laptop with a USB attached so I can have my visuals. Otherwise, I will probably be a lot less comfortable/effective. One piece of advice here – when in doubt remove slides and keep your talk shorter rather than piling on content and making it longer. I’ve never once seen a crowd object to someone taking less time than was scheduled. The opposite happens all too often.
Step 2. Practice giving the talk in front of a mirror – not just once or twice but several times, maybe 8-10 times if you’re really nervous about it. The key thing you’re trying to achieve here is a comfort level with what you’re going to say. You don’t want to read from a script but you want to hit the right points and deliver a coherent message. The more you practice verbalizing what you want to say the more comfortable your brain will be finding the right words when the big moment arrives.
Step 3. Practice giving the talk to friends, family or anyone else you can find. This can be done anywhere and my poor wife has been subjected to several presentations on topics that probably don’t interest her at all. The ideal scenario is to practice your talk in the room where you will actually deliver it and with a few people in the audience who will help point out slides/sections that are difficult to understand. If you can’t be in the same physical location, try your best to recreate it. Stand up and put yourself in the moment. It may feel silly and embarrassing to be seen by passers-by standing in a lecture hall by yourself practicing your talk but do it anyway. Better to get the nerves out during practice rather than on the big day.
Step 4. On the day of the big talk, wake up early and do some exercise. If you’re traveling stay in a Marriott Courtyard (I get a bump in my Marriott Rewards status for linking – right?) or a similar type of hotel with a complimentary fitness center. Spend 20 minutes on the bike or treadmill. Go to a Bikram Yoga class. If you don’t have access to a gym just do some jumping jacks, push ups, sit ups, lunges, etc. Or, go for a walk, the simplest and perhaps best of all exercises. Now don’t overdo it (you don’t want your arms and legs to be trembling with fatigue) just get the blood flowing.
Step 5. Dress up a bit. You have to conform to the event dress code so don’t wear a tux or a fancy outfit if it’s not appropriate but dress a little nicer than you would if you were just sitting in the audience. This is certainly optional so if you’ll be more comfortable in a casual outfit that’s fine but for me being slightly overdressed helps me play the part in Step 7.
Step 6. Leave enough time to run through the presentation one last time. Just one final rehearsal helps me have the material fresh in my head and usually gives me a slight confidence boost. It’s sort of a “oh yeah, I know this stuff” kind of refresher that kills off the seeds of doubt that might otherwise get planted just before the talk. To fit this in I often print my slides in “handout” format and use the print-out as my prompt so I don’t have to have my laptop open.
Step 7. Arrive early and pretend to be a game show host. I’m sort of an introvert and normally I don’t like to make chit-chat at a cocktail party and I don’t really socialize at conferences very comfortably. But, on the day that I’m going to give a presentation I like to act like a game show host. Before the talk begins I wander around the room, introduce myself to strangers, make conversation, and try to have fun.
Step 8. Go to the bathroom, grab a Kleenex and fill up a water bottle. I don’t think this one requires much explanation. You don’t want to have any uncomfortable urges while you’re waiting for your turn on stage. I find that this becomes more of an issue with each passing decade of life. Have a Kleenex in your pocket just in case you have a runny nose – you don’t want to look like my 3-year old after she sneezes and then wipe up using your jacket sleeves. Finally, sometimes I get that dry crackle in my mouth when I’m nervous so I want water nearby.
Step 9. Think of a joke or ice-breaker to say right at the beginning of your talk. Sometimes this is not appropriate if it’s a somber affair but it’s good to let the audience know that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t over script this – in fact, something situational and relevant at that very moment works best. If done effectively it will help get the audience ready to not only listen to what you have to say but to also be on your side and give you the benefit of any doubt they might have.
Step 10. Breathe easy, open your mouth and let the right words come out. If you did the right amount of preparation in Steps 2, 3 and 6 it will just happen magically. Your brain has now been conditioned to say particular phrases and make specific points in coordination with the slides in your presentation. You just need to let it happen – breathe in and out. Oxygen is a good thing. And, don’t rush! If you talk like a machine gun no one will be able to keep up. Take your time to make your points. That’s why it’s important to err on the side of too few slides. Push some of your superfluous slides to an “appendix” section. The slides are there if you need them but you don’t have to skip past them if you run out of time.
That’s it! I don’t know if those steps would work for anyone else but they work for me. I find that I usually enjoy giving a talk if I’m well prepared. My sister likes to say that “preparation is liberation” and I think that’s exactly right, especially for nerve-wracking presentations.
I’m giving a talk this week in Chicago and plan to use this approach. Leave a comment if you have a different approach or suggestion that works for you and might help others.