Public speaking. Just putting those two words together can cause anxiety in the smartest, bravest people I know.
Part of my job is helping people feel more comfortable when they stand up to talk in front of others. When you’re comfortable, your audience is comfortable and you all can have a good time together.
But how do you get comfortable with presenting when it makes you nervous just thinking about it? Telling you to “just be yourself” doesn’t work. As we writers and editors know, “be” is not an action verb. Here’s the action verb we suggest instead—trust yourself. Trust who you are, what you know and what you can do. Nobody can do what you do just the way you do it. It’s what makes you unique, interesting and powerful as a presenter.
You have been asked or you have volunteered to present because you have good stuff to share. Trust that.
Here’s another action verb for you—help. Your intent as a communicator should be to help your listener get your message. That’s it. Now, the concept of helping isn’t unfamiliar to us as editors because it’s at the core of what we do. We help our writers so they can help their readers. Please don’t “present” or “deliver” your message—just help.
By maintaining focus on what we can do to help or serve our listeners, we don’t have time to think about ourselves. And that’s when we get nervous—when we think about ourselves and what other people are thinking about us. To be less nervous when you present, just help. It will calm your nerves and boost your confidence—a win-win scenario!
Trust yourself. Help your listeners. Standing on those foundational principles, you can now dig into the practicalities of how to prepare for your presentation.
Story First. Graphics Backup. This should be second nature to us, right? After all, we’re “word people,” so the story should naturally come first. But most people, amateurs and professionals alike, start by putting together a slide deck with pictures and a detailed outline.
If that’s your usual process, you are normal. I read an article once that sums it up perfectly: “The problem with PowerPoint is that it’s too easy.” Yep, we can just put it all up there and be done with it. Instead, do what Steve Jobs (a master presenter) did—never start working on the slide deck until you have created your story.
Whatever it is that you’ll be presenting, first locate your personal, positive passion about it by asking, “How do I feel about my subject?” Everything you share should radiate from that. Speak from your heart. And as you create your story, the ideas for the graphics will follow naturally.
Beware! There are two big traps you can fall into when you create your story.
Help your listeners by making it easy for them to focus on one idea at a time. Don’t put up busy slides and continue to talk. Your audience will be in conflict; they won’t know whether to listen to you or figure out the slides, and sadly, won’t get your message at all.
Let’s first talk about text on slides.
We’re word people. We like words. We like to put a lot of words on slides. But that’s not always helpful. Does a slide with lines of dense text help the listener? Nope. “But I need all that text; those are my cues of what to say,” I hear you cry.
The slides are not for you; they are for your listener. If you need notes to help you remember what comes next, no problem. Use those bulleted notes you created and have them handy when you present. It’s fine if you check your notes; really, it is! If you depend on the slides for your notes, you’ll be turning your back on your audience every time a new slide comes up.
Sometimes you might want to share a quote or a writing example on the screen. No problem. Put it up and then read it out loud so that you and the audience are experiencing it together. Here’s what not to do—put up a slide with a lot of text and start talking. The poor listeners. They’re trying to read what’s on the screen and listen to you at the same time. Is it truly possible to multitask that way? No, it isn’t.
What to do? Let’s say you have key points you want to share, and you think it would be helpful for your audience to see the text on the slide. Fair enough. “Build” or “animate” them; in other words, show the bullet points one at a time, rather than putting them all up at once. And, keep those bullet points short. You’re helping your listener focus on one thing at a time.
Charts and Graphs
Will charts and graphs help the listener? They can, but it’s important to prep them carefully. You’ve likely had the experience as an audience member where a presenter shared a slide that looked intriguing to you, so you started trying to figure it out. The speaker was talking away, but they weren’t telling you what the different colors meant or what that microscopic font said or why that one line was going up and down like a mountain range.
When you are the presenter, think about a slide from the audience’s point of view. What can you do to make it easy for them to get it? The goal is to show only what you’re talking about at that time. Maybe you can “gray out” the non-essential information. Maybe you can “build” a chart one piece at a time. Maybe you can add a circle or arrow on a graph to highlight a specific point. There are options!
Pictures can be a great addition, and they are most helpful when they are “full bleed,” i.e., they cover the whole screen. It’s not uncommon for presenters to cram four pictures on one slide. Here’s the good news: it doesn’t cost any more time or money to put each image on its own slide. Though occasionally you’ll put two images side by side for comparison, most of the time you’ll be doing your audience a favor by showing images one at a time. (Remember those people in the back row!)
Here’s another way that most of us prepare for a presentation. We work and work on the slides and tweak them and change them and fix them until it’s time to “stand and deliver.” But guess what? That slide deck is not the presentation. You are! And you need to practice.
Practice. Sigh! Rarely is it anyone’s favorite word. And yet it’s essential for being a prepared and comfortable presenter. Here are three key elements to practicing right:
We’re smart, so we think we can just run through all our ideas in our head and we’re ready to go. Here’s a “fun fact”: Thinking about your presentation is about as effective as thinking about going to the gym. Alas, just thinking about either of those activities doesn’t cut it. So practice out loud. Several times. And don’t practice in front of a mirror—it gets you focused on how you look and act. And where is your focus supposed to be? On helping your listener!
What does it mean to “practice right”? It’s letting go of trying to find the “perfect” way to say something. It certainly isn’t repeating the exact same thing over and over until it’s dead and lifeless. It means identifying the main parts of your story and speaking from your heart through those pieces until you get comfortable with the “flow.” Every time you speak it, different words should come out—just like in everyday conversation.
Studies show that in live communication, the meaning of your message is conveyed:
Much as we’d like to think that our witty words and dazzling slides are the best ways to reach our audience, our body speaks louder than our words. Use large, purposeful movements to help your listeners understand and visualize what you’re trying to communicate.
You may be thinking, “I’m not a hand talker,” but what may seem “over-the-top” to you just looks helpful to your audience. I like to say, “Watch humans in their natural habitat.” You’ll see how often people use gestures as a natural extension of what they’re talking about. And here’s a bonus: the more you engage your body, the more comfortable you get. You’ll feel less nervous, and your message will be clearer.
I hope these ideas can help dispel some of the nerves the words “public speaking” can invoke. You have knowledge, experience and passion. Thanks for helping your listeners by sharing who you are and what you know!
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