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More than 10 years on and I can still vividly remember the presentation that reduced me to a bundle of nerves.
It was a presentation on major incident planning that I had been asked to deliver for a colleague to an audience of around 300 people from across the emergency services.
I’d given presentations before, as well as speeches at weddings, but this particular public speaking request really got to me.
And in the days leading up to the event my nervousness steadily increased until I was struggling to eat and suffering regular nosebleeds.
Here’s what I learnt from that experience.
I think that a big part of the problem for me with this presentation was that I hadn’t written it, or the accompanying slides, and consequently it never really felt natural to me.
My flawed approach was to try to simply familiarise myself with the content provided, and if possible, memorise it.
What I should have done was taken some ownership and introduced my own examples and anecdotes.
These give speakers content they can talk about naturally which is a great way of building some confidence and finding their feet in the presentation.
The other issue with not writing this presentation was that it came with a number of text heavy slides.
And feeling nervous, and not entirely confident with the subject, I felt compelled to read them aloud.
But this approach can become a bit of a vicious circle. Reading aloud does not engage the audience so they become restless. The speaker picks up on this and becomes increasingly anxious.
That’s how it felt for me.
My advice is to restrict the amount to text on your slides to a few words or ideas so that you do not become reliant on them. Use them to support what you have to say.
If you are already battling the nerves the last thing you need are any technical difficulties. That is just going to compound the situation and add to the stress.
Certainly, fiddling about with a USB stick and praying that it would work on the event laptop, while the audience waited for me to get started, did me few favours.
What I should have done was arrive at the venue early and test all the equipment I needed before anyone else got there. That would have enabled me to arrive on the stage for real knowing that the audience could hear me and that they would be able to see the slides.
This is one mistake I didn’t make, but I think it is one many of us will have come across in presentations – the presenter gets up to speak and begins by saying something along the lines of ‘excuse me if I seem nervous’.
There really is no benefit to advertising your anxiety in this situation. Nerves are actually seldom visible to an audience.
Telling them that you are nervous sounds like an excuse and does not create the strong opening impression presenters should be looking for.
One of the key ways to cut out the stress is to remember that you are the expert.
No-one else at the event I had problems with had a media background and, without sounding boastful, I’m sure no-one else there knew more about the subject than me – that is the whole reason I had been asked to speak.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think like this at the time.
Don’t try to be perfect
Looking back I think I was fearful of making mistakes in my presentation and not being perfect.
But striving to be perfect is not realistic. Perfect presentations don’t exist.
Everyone makes mistakes in presentations and most of the time they are much more minor than the speaker feels at the time. Often the audience won’t notice them at all.
In fact, nervousness can help endear the speaker to the audience.
Mindfulness feels like it has become a bit of a buzzword and it is one I’m generally reluctant to use.
But I think there is a place for it here because looking back I had lost all sense of perspective with this particular presentation and I had escalated it in my mind to a much bigger issue than it really was.
What would have happened if it had gone horribly wrong?
I’m not going to recommend yoga and stretching here, but I think there are things I could have done that would have helped with my nerves.
For example, because I got myself into a situation where I pretty much tried to memorise the presentation, I over-prepared.
It became my sole focus, both at work and at home, in the days leading up to the event, but I should have stepped away at regular intervals and done other things.
Even some simple breathing exercises and shoulder rolls immediately before I got started would have helped provide some relaxation.
After delivering the presentation, I put it to the back of my mind. I simply didn’t want to think about it anymore and instead tried to make up for several days of nervous fasting by hammering the event buffet.
But in retrospect that was a mistake.
I think I would have benefited from spending time reflecting on what went well, what could have gone better and really considering whether it had actually been anywhere near as bad as I had imagined.
I should have also asked for some feedback from those in the audience.
Spending some time on this would have helped me feel less nervous the next time I came to give a presentation to a similar sized audience.
You might expect me to say this as I now work for a company that provides presentation skills training, but being offered a place on a course would have been enormously beneficial.
I had not had any presentation skills training at that time. So although I had given presentations to much smaller groups and carried out a number of media interviews, its perhaps not that surprising that I delivered this one looking as white as a sheet, battling a nosebleed, holding my notes with clammy hands and trying to overcome a shaky voice.
Presentation skills training would have helped me overcome some of the anxiety issues I experienced here, shown me how to prepare more effectively and ultimately ensured I gave a more accomplished performance.
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