When I was in college, I had an internship with a large oil and gas company. While I was working there, I felt like I really impressed the people around me with my work ethic, determination, resourcefulness, and productivity. Many of the projects that I worked on were finished weeks and even months ahead of schedule to everyone's surprise.
But at the end of the internship, I, along with a half-dozen other interns, was asked to give a presentation to the executive committee who created the intern program. Of course my boss was in this meeting… and my boss’s boss… and three vice-presidents, all of my intern peers, and various observers.
In the beginning, I didn’t think much of this presentation, but as the day moved closer and closer, I began to get more and more nervous. I was the youngest person ever to be accepted to this program — just 19 years old. The next youngest intern was 23 and was in her second year of law school. So, I felt a little out-classed to say the least.
My boss told me that this would be a great opportunity to shine. He said that if I could just get across to this group how productive I had been to the company, then I would have no problem getting a generous permanent offer from the company upon graduation, and that just made me even more nervous.
I wrote, memorized, and practiced my speech over and over. I had a flawless delivery. I realized that I needed a few visuals, so I created a couple of black and white cutouts of topics I’d be covering.
The big day came, and as I walked into the room, trembling from the fear and pressure, I noticed that every single person had on a nicely pressed suit. I was wearing slacks with a shirt and tie, but no jacket. I didn’t even own a jacket. The pressure began to build even more.
As the first presenter was introduced, she walked to the front of the room, sat down a manila folder, turned on her overhead projector (this was in the days before PowerPoint,) and put up a beautiful, color-filled slide. Why in the world had I not thought of using an overhead! My palms began to sweat profusely.
When the second presenter began to speak, I became even more nervous. He had the audience laughing and nodding their heads within minutes, and created a true rapport with the audience. I didn’t have any jokes in my presentation, and I couldn’t see how anyone would be nodding in agreement with me, because I was just prepared to recite some facts. My stomach churned.
It was now my turn. As the director called my name, I stood and moved my hands to pick up my notes. When I did, the napkin that my hand was resting on came with me — attached as a result of the sweat that now seemed to be pouring from my palms. As I peeled it off, I picked up my notes, and I could see the pages shaking in my hand. I just prayed that the people in the audience couldn’t see it.
As I spoke my first sentence, I could feel the beads of sweat on my forehead, so I pulled the sleeve of my white shirt across my brow. A few seconds later I used the other sleeve and continued alternating them throughout the presentation.
I talk pretty fast anyway, but when I get nervous, ITalkRealFast! SoFastThatItWouldMakeYourEyeballsSpin! I gave my entire 15-minute speech in less than five minutes and said every word.
As I looked into the audience, no one was nodding. Most people just had blank looks of confusion. When I sat down, there was utter silence in the room. The director called a break. I looked at my sleeves, and they were soaked to my skin. I was so embarrassed that I wanted to crawl under the table and die. If I could have walked out of that room and never laid eyes on any of those people again, I would have gladly done so.
About seven months later, when the intern committee from this company came back to my school, my adviser pulled me aside and told me that they had told him that they would not be extending an offer to have me back. I was crushed. I had never failed this badly at anything.
I tell you that story so you can see that if I can become a good enough speaker that people actually pay me to speak… then ANYONE can do this!
As a result of that failure, for next few years, when I had opportunities to present to a group, I began to either defer to someone else, or make excuses to get out of speaking. During that time, I learned a valuable lesson:
Right or wrong, people form a perception about our competence based on how confidently we present ourselves. Let me give you an example.
Let’s say you have a pain in your side and you go see a doctor about it. The doctor looks at you and says, “Uhm… Well, uh you know? You might, uhm, have to have your uh appendix taken out.” How competent are you going to feel about this doctor’s ability to treat you? Or even worse—the doctor says all the right things, but as he looks over your chart, you notice his hand shaking. It doesn’t matter how many degrees this person has or how many initials the doctor has after his or her name. You will probably question the doctor’s competence.
That is exactly what happened to me during that first presentation. I realized that even though I had been a respected and valued employee of the company, the negative perception that was formed about me during my presentation counteracted all of the goodwill I had previously developed. I vowed that the same thing would never happen to me again. I was going to do whatever I had to do to make sure that the next time I gave a presentation, I would give the audience a true representation of my abilities.
The problem I had was that I didn’t know where to start. Where do you go to become a better speaker? The first thing I did was join a Toastmasters group. The people who attended the club that I joined were fantastic people. I still consider many of them today to be good friends. But as I watched each present, I noticed even the most senior members were not the captivating speakers that I wanted to become. In fact, most of the talks I heard were not very compelling. Most were down-right boring. I began to ask some of the members how long it had taken them to get to the level they were at in the group, and the first I talked to said, “15 years.” I was shocked. First, I knew I didn’t want to spend the next 15 years struggling with this. And besides, after 15 years of practice, and this guy still wasn’t a great speaker.
It reminded me of when I first took up golf. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I bought a cheap set of clubs and went out to the driving range. I hacked around for a few weeks, but I seemed to be getting worse than when I first started. The golf pro from the pro-shop saw me struggling and asked if I wanted to take a few lessons. I told him I had more time than money, so I’d just keep practicing on my own for a while. I said, “You know what they say, practice make perfect.”
He smiled and replied, “They are wrong. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. If you practice a bad golf swing, then you’re just going to get really good at a bad golf swing. And when you come to me later, it’s just going to take that much longer to break your old habits.”
That’s exactly what my friends in the toasting club had been doing all those years. I realized that if I really wanted to be a great speaker, that I was going to have to learn from great speakers. So I got a coach — one that actually made a living speaking in front of groups.
Since that day, I have attended over a dozen different public speaking classes, trained with some of the most highly paid public speaking coaches in the world, and taught over 300 public speaking modules, and in that time, I have identified a number of simple, key things that anyone can do to overcome fear and nervousness in front of a group. I have used these things myself with great success. Over the last ten years in my public speaking classes, I’ve watched the confidence of thousands of people grow and develop in a matter of minutes as a result of using these few simple techniques.
On the following pages, you will find an outline of tips and techniques that successful speakers have used for centuries to create solid, polished first impressions and deliver dynamic, fearless presentations.
The Fear of Public Speaking is a Universal Fear
A number of years ago, Jerry Seinfeld talked about a poll that had been conducted in which Americans said that their number one fear was public speaking, and that the fear of death was number two. He said that the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. Some of the best humor usually has an element of truth in it. What we can learn from this is that when we feel nervous in front of a group — we’re normal! Almost everyone feels that nervousness and anxiety. The very best speakers are the ones that put that fear aside and perform anyway.
Below are a few simple things you can do to help you perform better in your next presentation and ease some of your nervousness and anxiety.
- Realize 90% of Nervousness doesn’t Show: Most of the symptoms of nervousness, butterflies, sweaty palms, faster heart beat, etc., never show to an audience. If you set your notes down on a lectern, the audience won’t even be able to see shaky hands.
- Written Material: Never, never, never, never, never write out a talk word for word unless absolute accuracy must be maintained as in legal situations. Otherwise, just make brief notes. A little spontaneity adds a tremendous amount of character to your talk. Written speeches are almost always boring, and when you read text, it is much more difficult to make a connection with your audience.
- Committing Your Talk to Memory: Never memorize a talk word for word. Memorizing a talk word for word can actually lead to more anxiety. If something out of the ordinary happens or if you ever lose your place, you will put an extreme amount of pressure on yourself to get back. A better way to memorize a talk is to narrow your talk down to just a few main ideas and commit those main ideas to memory. If during your presentation you have additional time, you can add additional details to the main ideas, and if time runs short (which it often does,) you can rest assured that your main points were delivered.
- Show up Early: Get an idea for the setting, mingle with your audience, and test any equipment that you will be using.
- Take a Few Deep Breaths: When many of us get nervous, we tend to take shallow breaths. This robs our brain of oxygen and can create a negative reinforcing cycle. What happens is that we originally take a shallow breath out of nervousness and try to speak. Somewhere along the way, we realize that we won’t be able to finish our sentence, so we speed up. That makes us more nervous, and our next breath is even more shallow. When this cycle occurs, just pause, take a deep breath, and continue.
- Look for a Friendly Face: As you are approaching the front, make eye-contact with a few friendly faces in the audience. Smile, and they will probably smile back. It will put you both at ease.
- Drop your Hands: Your hands and your gestures can add great impact to your delivery, but when you are not using your hands, just drop them to your side. It will feel awkward at first, but dropping your hands to your side is the most natural gesture you can use. For instance, when you walk down the hallway at your office, do you cup your hands in front as you walk? Is it more natural to lock your hands behind you when you walk? Probably not. In most situations, it is natural to just let your hands drop to your side. When you do this, it will allow you to make more purposeful gestures when you need to. (See Chapter 6 on Gestures and Movement.)
- Speak Only on Topics on which You are an Expert: One of the reasons that speech classes and toasting clubs can actually make people more nervous is that the topics we choose to present on during these activities are topics that we put together after just a little research. If someone is going to ask you to present about a business topic, the main reason would be because you are the most qualified person to speak on the topic. You are qualified because of your experience. Your delivery should be as casual as if your best friend came up to you and asked, “How’s your project going?” This will allow you to deliver your topic is a way that makes the audience feel as if you are talking to each person directly.
- Be Excited about Your Topic: If you aren’t excited or enthused about your topic, then no one else will be either. If you give your audience energy, they will give energy back to you.
- Practice: Rather than practicing your presentation in front of a mirror (when we do this, we tend to find things to nitpick that an audience would never notice,) try practicing your delivery by using it in a conversation with a friend or loved one. “Hey, have I told you about the project I’m working on…”
After training thousands of people to become better speakers, one thing that I know for sure is that EVERYONE gets nervous when they present. Exceptional speakers just don’t show it. In fact, in many cases, the great speaker will use that nervousness to his or her advantage. The next chapter will show you how.
The tips above are only valuable if you create the habit of using them on a consistent basis. The Fearless Presentations ® class is a step-by-step approach to consciously and consistently applying these and other presentation skills to reduce fear and nervousness. If you feel fear, nervousness, or anxiety when you speak, please take a look at attending one of our classes. We offer them every couple of months in major cities all over the world!