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Conquering nerves during a presentation

Helen Mayson

It's easy to feel nervous when you're presenting, whether it's to colleagues or senior staff. Edge asks how you can tackle those nerves and turn them into energy for your performance

Simon is a senior manager at a financial institution. Though he enjoys his job, one part of it fills him with dread – giving presentations. He finds himself shaking, stumbling over words and unable to concentrate. How can he conquer his fear of presenting?

Jon Hayward, managing director, Smart Development consultancy

While it may not be a flair for public speaking that has enabled Simon to reach senior manager level, it’s important for him to remember there’s a reason he’s the one that’s being chosen to deliver presentations.

In all likelihood, Simon will have demonstrated he has a detailed knowledge of his subject matter and those listening to his presentation will be there because they respect him and want to hear what he has to say.

Confidence is the key to delivering a credible presentation and Simon should take confidence from knowing that he is the expert in the room. While there’s no magic formula for overcoming nervousness, being confident in his ability and having faith in the depth of his knowledge should help to ease Simon’s fears.

Simon must be sure of what it is he’s trying to say and who he’s saying it to. Researching the audience and understanding their expectations will enable him to prepare a presentation that clearly and concisely addresses the key points he wishes to convey. Simon will know what he wants to talk about, but he needs to make sure his presentation stays on message.

Having done his homework on the subject matter, researched his audience and prepared a well-structured presentation that meets its objectives, all that remains is for Simon to practise his delivery. Practising a presentation can make the difference between an Oscar-winning performance and a cringe-filled ramble.

Simon should take every opportunity to run through his presentation in front of colleagues, friends, family and even the family pet! Running through his material will help Simon familiarise himself with the timings and will enable him to anticipate key milestones during the delivery. Most of the world’s greatest performers will run through numerous dress rehearsals before a big show and Simon should be no different.

By recognising his expertise and using these skills to prepare thoroughly, Simon should be well-equipped to deliver a confident presentation. It’s natural for people to be nervous ahead of a big performance. The trick is to harness this nervous energy and use it to deliver a knockout presentation.

Jo Ellen Grzyb, director, Impact Factory training consultancy

Although glossophobia, a fear of public speaking, is the most common fear and source of stress amongst most adults (and one task that many of us would like to avoid entirely), communicating successfully and with confidence remains crucial to business success.

Standing in a presentation situation is nerve-wracking and this is when the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ instinct kicks in. However, Simon should use this adrenaline to his advantage, as it improves concentration and energy levels. Simon could use visualising and conditioning techniques, which block out all distractions and place him firmly in the moment to help manage his nerves.

Even if Simon is shaking inside, confident body language, like walking with shoulders back and a smile on his face will increase the hormones that will help him feel more relaxed and self-assured.

Although facial expressions and hand gestures can help convey the meaning of Simon’s words, they can also be unnerving for the audience and are the first indicators of nervousness. Simon should transform these distracting motions into meaningful movements to illustrate key points so the audience does not lose interest.

It’s natural for people to be nervous ahead of a big performance. The trick is to harness this nervous energy and use it to deliver a knockout presentation.
A good communicating technique is drawing the audience in so they are active contributors, such as walking around the room and using eye contact with varying audience members, because as humans we respond better when we are moving around and interacting with others.

The expression ‘Death by PowerPoint’ comes up again and again when addressing presentation skills. I believe that long and complex visuals add very little and can serve as a distraction from the core messages, and unless an idea cannot be delivered verbally, they should be avoided.

Simon’s audience wants him to succeed and because many of them may also suffer from glossophobia they will admire his courage. While a mistake of some kind may seem like a huge embarrassment to Simon, it is less meaningful to his audience, because their judgments will be more lenient than his own. They will not pick up on it if he carries on regardless; just one of the reasons why scripts can be more of a hindrance than a help.

Recovering well from a mistake is far more powerful than struggling to make a ‘perfect’ presentation. Audiences want to be on your side, so showing that vulnerability can really make a difference.

The majority of those who deliver unsuccessful presentations do so because they want to get through it as quickly as possible. Simon shouldn’t rush the presentation but should talk at a pace that feels comfortable for him. He should understand that he doesn’t have to be 100% perfect to succeed.

As long as Simon keeps a few of these key principles in mind, public speaking will soon become a stimulating and self-satisfying experience.

Charlie Lawson, national director, BNI (Business Network International)

Simon’s nerves will never disappear – and nor should they. Ask any top speaker, and they’ll tell you that some nerves are important to generate the right level of adrenaline to deliver a presentation well. However, the obvious signs of nerves do disappear.

A tip that has served me well is 1-4-2 breathing: this involves inhaling (one second), holding the breath (four seconds), and exhaling (two seconds). You should do this in ratio – I usually go with 2-8-4. Repeat this 10 times before speaking – the increased oxygen flowing round the body always makes me feel more confident.

Simon should also make notes. Speeches that are read out never have the same impact as those delivered from the heart. However, you should never feel worried about having bullet point notes on a card as a memory jogger – if you lose track of what you’re saying, a glance down at the bullet points gets you right back on track.

In a 20-30 minute presentation, the actual words you use will account for only 15% of the impact – 45% comes from use of the voice, and 40% will come from your body language.

However, when we practise presentations, we tend to spend 100% of the time on the words we’re actually going to say. When practising, do it in front of a mirror or a friendly audience to get feedback on your body language – and try varying the speed, volume and tone of your voice.

Remember to think about your audience: 70% of people prefer to take in information visually – yet many presentations are delivered solely in an auditory way. Simon should think about introducing some pictures on a PowerPoint, or some interactivity, such as asking the audience questions. Building a rapport with your audience will make you feel more relaxed and you will feel that you’re engaging with them rather than just talking at a mass of blank faces.

Successful presenting boils down to displaying two traits: energy and certainty. If you’re passionate about your job, this should be easy.

These tips will ensure energy and certainty come through in every presentation that you do – and don’t forget to practise


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