“Just picture the audience in nothing but their underwear.”
That was the sage advice I received from my Communications 101 college professor on how best to overcome stage fright when delivering a presentation. Aside from the heebie-jeebies her suggestion gave me, I can understand why my teacher thought it was a good approach when having to get up and speak in a public venue. Public speaking is intimidating, so I guess picturing everyone in nothing but their Fruit of the Looms is one way of putting yourself at ease.
Facing down a crowd can be incredibly nerve-wracking. All eyes will be on little-ol’ you. And it’s your job to engage with—if not downright dazzle—your audience.
But if you’re not comfortable in the spotlight, walking up those stairs to the dais can feel more like a forced march toward the chopping block than a prized opportunity to share your knowledge and expertise.
Public speaking and presentations have been a lynchpin of my long and somewhat colorful career path. From my early days as an elected politician, to a decade-long stint as a game developer, to my current role at Interprose, I’ve had to repeatedly get past the shaky knees and sweaty palms that come with speaking in public.
After being on the speaking circuit for so many years, you’d think I’d be an old hand at this… but, truth be told, I still get butterflies in my stomach when I’m introduced to the audience.
So, how do you overcome that fear? What can you do to deliver a winning presentation that encourages your audience to applaud, give you high marks on post-presentation surveys, and seek you out for a chat after the microphone is turned off? What strategies can you put into place to help take you from “Ho-hum” to “Holy cow!” at your next speaking engagement?
Here are six recommendations and best-practices that will, I hope, turn your next speaking session into something that’s both enjoyable and memorable.
1. Ditch the dots
If you’re like me, you tend to want to cram as much information as possible onto your slides or into your narrative. Too many bullet points can be distracting to your audience: They’ll be torn between listening to what you’re saying and trying to read all that data you’ve packed into your bullets. Keep your bullet points to a minimum, and highlight only the key concepts you want your listeners to remember. Or, if you’re like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, get rid of them entirely.
2. Keep it brief
Have you heard of the (in)famous “18-minute” TED Talk rule? According to TED and TEDx rules, “typical TED presentations should be no more than 18 minutes long.” But why so short?
Well, here’s the reasoning behind the rule, according to TED curator Chris Anderson: “It’s long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention…. It’s the length of a coffee break…. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.”
My favorite joke as a writer: “Why use one word when ten will do?” As you might guess, it’s often challenging for me to remember that less is more. But Chris is right: Focusing on your most valuable takeaways will not only help them stick in the audience’s minds but also make them eminently shareable, giving your words the potential to go viral.
3. Pictures are worth a lot of words
Humans are visual creatures. We like pretty pictures. Emphasizing your points with compelling imagery will help give your presentation some sizzle, as well as help to illustrate your narrative.
However, be careful. Too many visuals can overwhelm the information you’re trying to impart and make your presentation look cluttered. So leave lots of white space and pick only relevant images that underscore your message. And stay away from cheesy clip art, inappropriate photos, and, if possible, overly complex diagrams that won’t scale well once you get them on a big screen.
4. Practice makes perfect
Test, test, test your presentation. Make sure you know your material inside and out. Practice your delivery in your bathroom mirror if you have to until your words come as naturally as they would if you were in an everyday conversation with a colleague. Even better, find opportunities to do a dry run with coworkers, family, or friends.
Remember, the audience wants to make a connection with you, so act as though you were speaking to someone you’re familiar with. And don’t forget to time how long it takes you to get from your first slide to your closing.
5. Be yourself
You were invited to speak for a reason, so let your personality carry you forward and win over the crowd. Unless your topic is one that requires utmost decorum or formal language, add a joke or two or an amusing anecdote. In my own speaking engagements, I’ve used funny family stories, Internet memes, and unusual facts to capture and hold the audience’s attention.
But, do try out your jokes out beforehand; there’s nothing worse than having what you thought was a humorous line go over like a lead balloon. If your test listeners don’t laugh, it’s likely your audience won’t either.
6. Roll with the punches
Here’s the advice I wish my Communications 101 professor had really given me: Always expect the unexpected.
Your throat will get dry, your mic will send out a horrible feedback squeal, and you’ll trip over your words now and again, no matter how much practice you put in. You might even get a few walkouts. It happens. But how you deal with it is what will make or break your presentation.
I recently spoke at a conference for laser and electro-optics professionals—me, who hates math and for whom physics remains a mystery. If getting up to speak in front of an audience full of mad-genius-level physicists isn’t scary, I don’t know what is. During the Q&A session after my presentation, I flubbed a phrase I’ve used a thousand times before… and the moderator good-humoredly chided me about it. Instead of allowing my error to embarrass me, I responded with, “See? That’s why I’m not a physicist.” My one-liner earned hearty laughs, turning my goof into an instant connection with the audience.
Another good example: at the 1996 Academy Awards, presenter Sharon Stone discovered she didn’t have the envelope naming the winner of the Best Dramatic Score. Instead of fumbling awkwardly, she encouraged the audience to “have a psychic moment” with her, promptly bringing down the house and scoring rave reviews with the media.
So, you can see, going with the flow isn’t always easy, but it’s a critical skill for speakers to cultivate.
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Speaking in front of an audience can be an anxiety-inducing fear-fest, but these tips will help you showcase the superstar you truly are. And, if all else fails, you can always imagine ’em in their boxers and briefs.