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Presentation Skills: Who's Afraid?

By Katherine Craig

Family Services EAP Ottawa, January 2013

"Most people would prefer to be lying in the casket than giving the eulogy."    - Jerry Seinfeld

Fear of presenting to a group of people ranks right up there on the top 5 of horrible things to have to do. Why is that? Do we blame all the well-meaning school boards that mandated every child to speak for 3-5 minutes in front of the class in public speaking competitions? Maybe...they were pretty frightening! I know someone who actually vomited in front of the class and the dye was set for the rest of his life.

I am going to suggest that we blame it on the nature of the beast. By nature we are social creatures and move in groups like the zebras of the Serengeti. What happens to those hapless Zebras that get singled out? Eaten! We know in our heart of hearts that to stand outside the community runs the risk of "special" attention. And the fear is born.

So are we further ahead with this knowledge? I think not, it just tells us we're not crazy and our fears are well-founded. Meantime, we still need to do GREAT presentations at work. Presentations are the tools that can make or break a promotion.

Here's the secret - anyone can do a fantastic presentation - even you.

Think of a story that you know well and tell often. Maybe it's a fishing story? A childhood rite-of-passage? A summary of your favourite movie complete with the compelling reasons why itís the best movie ever made? Great sports moments? When you are telling these stories you donít need notes and you don't feel sick in the telling. Why? Because it's material you know and are comfortable with. You can answer questions about the story confidently without losing your place. In fact, you are a bit of a rock star when you tell this story!

There, the secret is out. You need to speak to material that you are comfortable with and have practised telling. It is largely the rule that when we go in front of a work audience we have rushed preparing the slides to the night before and tell ourselves we can "wing it." The results are commensurate. Every audience member can tell what is well prepared and what isn't. You need to be prepared!

Let's go over the fundamentals of a good presentation. There are four easy questions to answer before you even start.

  1. What type of presentation are you doing? (Briefing? Instructional? Persuasive?)
  2. What do you want the audience to do as a result of your brilliant presentation?
  3. What does the audience need to know to give you the results you need?
  4. What will make your presentation matter to the audience? (remember it's about them, not about you)

Once you've answered these questions you are ready to tackle the writing. You know how to do this as your teacher drilled this into you all the way through school - beginning, middle and conclusion.

There are a few tips to make these three sections stand up to examination. Start the presentation off with an attention grabber. Do you have a great statistic, quote or story? Use it at the beginning. Then establish a theme and structure. Let them in on the journey they'll be taking with you. This is the time to create that rapport. It could be 1 minute or it could be 10 minutes.

The middle of your presentation should be the meat in the sandwich. This is when you trot out the facts to support your opening statements and enlarge on the theme. Walk through it logically! You have been thinking about your topic for a long time but the audience may be thinking about this for the first time so lead them through it carefully. Donít rush or jump steps. Reflect back on number four above, what matters to the audience? Present your material and arguments through that lens.

Finally, your conclusion should reprise your opening. A strong finish is essential. This is the call to action - what do you want them to do now? Say it! Another good story, quote or statistic will help spur that along.

You say, I still think Iím going to faint or be sick. My hands shake, my throat gets dry. This is all normal and there are a couple of tools to deal with this. Have a glass (not a bottle) of water handy. The glass of water helps with three things: it sooths a dry throat, stops your voice from getting pitchy, and buys you time as you pause to regroup and gather your thoughts.

Don't be afraid to pause, to look down at your notes and say "let's make sure weíve covered everything before we move on." Pose questions to the audience when you get nervous, this will take the spotlight off you for a few moments which will help you get your feet under you.

Remember the audience is there to hear a presentation, not to worry about the speaker. Imagine yourself telling that favourite story and tell yourself, I know how to tell a story. Because that's what every presentation is - a story.

It helps a lot of people to be in the room chatting with the audience as they arrive then when the time comes move to the front of the room. That prevents the inner voice from winding you up behind the curtain. Also, give up the podium! Take your notes and move around the audience. This will connect them with you and again ease your nerves.

Like your story that improves with each telling, as will your presentation. My rule of thumb is to practise it until I bore myself and I hardly need my notes. That's about five times from beginning to end. Practise it out loud! Practise in the shower, when driving, when you wake up in the morning. Once you do all this then I promise it will work just fine with the audience. When you just read notes your brain skips over parts that don't work, when you say it out loud you will catch incongruities so you can fix it before you are at the front of a room. This is a critical point.

Take heart; once you have done this process a number of times the steps get faster and faster. As someone who presents all the time I still do all the steps. And I still get a bit breathless before I go on. Then my preparation and practise takes over and delivers the goods.

If you tell yourself you don't have the time to adequately prepare I want you to ask yourself - do I want that promotion?

Katherine Craig is the founder & CEO of Spearhead Executive Coaching, a dynamic organization dedicated to helping individuals and companies achieve greater success through the delivery of high-performance coaching programs. To comment on her story, send a message to Katherine@spearheadexecutivecoaching.com.