I don’t think anyone died, but, oh, the pain of presenting! It is said that people fear public speaking or giving oral presentations more than they do dying.
They avoid these sometimes-forced-upon-you school or work assignments and come up with all kinds of excuses. Work encounters are usually one-on-one discussions or sometimes explaining procedures or information at a seminar, but most people are taken out of their comfort level when they have to stand up in a room full of people and give an oral presentation.
These situations usually produce sweaty hands, heart pounding, dry mouth, and shaky knees syndrome. And these are the minor reactions! Sometimes you wonder if you could have a heart attack during one. The heart and pulse are way up there, sometimes accompanied by a flushed face. And by far, the anticipation of giving one is much worse than actually getting up there. Plus, a sleepless night worrying about ‘presenting tomorrow’ causes fogginess and disorientation, giving added fears of not speaking coherently.
Our boss gave all of us presentation-skill seminars to complete for our objectives one year. No one was happy about it. We decided the best thing was to get it over with as quickly as possible; we all were signed up within a week. The presentation class itself would last for one week – every afternoon for 4 hours.
At the first meeting, no one was smiling when the facilitator came in. He was an engaging young man and he was the only one smiling in the class. My fellow sufferers and I were deadpan and immobilized. We were zombies preparing for death; and we were prisoners. This class was mandatory on all our objectives, and we didn’t know each other well. Or really cared. We were all very self-absorbed.
The facilitator asked each of us to come up and introduce ourselves and he would video tape us. Yikes! Now? We all had to do it, of course, and it is a blur but I have it on tape – to look at when I need to get humbled.
For the next five days, we learned that it was natural to feel nervous. And he gave us pointers on how to relax and calm down. When he finally got us to sit without fidgeting, he explained he was going to help us prepare to give a 5-minute speech. Five minutes!?! He’s crazy – no way. I think I will call in sick that day.
He went over our all introductory videos and pointed out our strengths and weaknesses and there weren’t many strengths in that class. But he stayed with it and explained how we were to present. He gave us these guidelines:
Eat a good breakfast so your stomach doesn’t distress and make noise while you are talking. Force yourself; the breakfast will wake you up and give you strength.
Dress sharply for self confidence and take a deep breath when it is your turn to speak.
Introduce yourself and say something to lighten up the mood; maybe an amusing story or a quick joke. It breaks the ice.
Stand comfortably, and allow your hands to express along with what you are saying. Don’t stand there (like I did) with your hands folded in front of you. Give natural expression to your body – otherwise you will stand stiff and hold your ear the whole time like the PhD chemist did in his introductory tape.
Focus on speaking to the whole class – and this is important – look in their eyes, and take in the whole group, talking from face to face. If you find a friendly face that smiles, dwell there a little longer. If you want to know if they are listening you could ask something, like, “Isn’t that true?”, or “Don’t you agree?” but be prepared if they don’t agree, they may ask you a question about it. Think about what questions may be asked. …..And most importantly……
BE PREPARED AND KNOW YOUR SUBJECT WELL. PROJECT YOUR VOICE. Actually you should feel like you are softly shouting. Most people cannot be heard; they speak too softly.
Don’t read from notes or a paper – you can use a small file card with reminders in case your brain freezes up but use it only as a reference. You may utilize graphs or visuals – they take the spotlight off you and gives your listeners something else to dwell on besides you. But don’t make your entire presentation explaining slides.
Focusing on all these directives actually takes nervousness away – two matters cannot occupy the same space. To this day, I focus on how to present as much as what I am presenting – it works – and neutralizes the self-consciousness.
I practiced before presenting. I engaged members of the family and friends – even the family dog and cat. Practice helped me to get comfortable with speaking in front of someone else. On Dread Day, the facilitator taped each of our 5-minute speeches and the tape verified that we could get up and pull this off. I was euphoric – wow – I can really do this.
I would never be catatonic-nervous again. I had built up fear around doing this all my life, and I faced the fear and the fear was gone. It’s true that ‘we have nothing to fear, but fear itself’.
I counseled many employees after this and signed them up for the presentation class. I went through it with them with great compassion and empathy. I was rewarded at the end of each of their classes, when they would come up to me, with a big grin and dazzling eyes, repeating, “I did it! I did it…..And I won’t ever be afraid again”.
Marie Coppola.© October 2014