Has this ever happened to you? — The night before an exam when you start to panic because you think you don’t know anything, or the morning before you have to give a presentation and you forget all the words?
The reason why this happens is that when you’re stressed; your body releases a hormone called cortisol, which interferes with the process of forming and recalling memories.
The memories are in there, but you’ve shut the door to that part of your brain. You’re stressed and tense, and it’s not letting you think clearly.
Now, I’ve worked in B2B sales, strategy consulting, and law, so I’ve watched and given my fair share of presentations. In fact, there were weeks during my role in consulting where my days consisted of just that — giving presentations to industry experts. And I can guarantee this — not every expert is good at presenting and not every presenter needs to be an expert.
Something that every good presenter does need, however, is confidence.
Last weekend, I helped my younger brother with his interview prep. He attended an assessment center earlier this week; a two-day event hosted by an international company during which young grads have to take part in a series of tasks. One of these tasks was a presentation. He prepared the slides and drafted a script last week so that he could practice presenting it to me over the weekend.
I would rate his first attempt a 7 out of 10. Not bad at all for a first go, but I noted a few points for improvement.
I gave him my feedback and we made some slight changes to his script.
He presented again — 5 out of 10.
Then again — 3 out of 10.
He went again — 0… he forgot his words. Complete mind-block.
On paper, my feedback should have improved his speech. But it also made him suddenly very self-aware; conscious about what I and other people might be thinking about him. The feedback wasn’t the issue; the issue was the effect it had. He suddenly became extremely nervous.
He said he wasn’t ‘that nervous’, but his performance spoke for itself. Clearly, he was, and his nerves weren’t letting him think clearly. So, I tailored my approach. I focused on giving him a new set of feedback; this time, with the sole purpose of boosting his confidence. It worked wonders; he got the job!
Here are nine ways I helped my brother to regain his confidence and take his delivery from a 0 to a 10!
Adopt the Right Mindset — You’re a Teacher
The most important thing to do at the outset is to adopt the right mindset. Pretend that you’re a teacher. Stop thinking of your audience as people who are there to judge you, even if it is an assessment. During those ten minutes (or however long the presentation has to be), you’re the teacher.
Even if you think your audience knows what you’re talking about, explain what you’re saying as though you’re a teacher teaching your students about this for the first time.
This will help you above all with two things. The first is confidence. Shift the spotlight away from yourself and place it on them. Think — “how can I explain this as best as I can for them? What can I do so that they’ll get the most out of this? How can I help them?”
The second is ‘pace’. A teacher wouldn’t rush through a presentation like they’re reading from a script (or at least, I hope not). A teacher has to pace their delivery; pause at the end of every key learning point to allow the students to take it in before moving on to the next point.
If you’re wondering — how could I teach them when they’re the experts? Well, I was a 25-year-old with just one year’s worth of work experience when I was giving presentations to experts in their industry. Just because I wasn’t an expert didn’t mean I didn’t have anything valuable to say.
My team and I had done a lot of research to find a solution to a problem they were experiencing. We had tried and tested it before, and we were confident that it could help. No, I couldn’t tell you everything there is to know about pharma, or about the energy sector. But so what? I can tell you what this solution does and how it can help you.
So never think that just because someone knows more than you, you don’t have anything valuable to say. Just make sure that you do have something to say.
Tell a Story
This is the best way I’ve found to engage an audience. You want to set the scene in their mind of what it is that you’re talking about.
If you have enough, starting the presentation with a personal anecdote, or describing an occurrence that happened to someone, somewhere, is a good way to do it. It arouses emotion and serves as a hook that draws the audience to what you’re saying; it’s a connection between them and you.
If you don’t have much time, then just make sure that you take a moment at the start to ‘set the scene’ of what you’ll be talking about.
For example, my brother’s presentation was pretty technical. He described a team project he worked on in college to engineer a plant that would turn seawater into drinking water for the people that lived on a remote island in the South Pacific.
His first attempt read like this:
“The objective was to build a nuclear power plant that would power a desalination plant on an island in the South Pacific.”
We changed it to this:
“The objective was to provide clean drinking water to the people living on a remote island in the South Pacific. We designed a nuclear desalination plant, which sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but essentially provides a method for using their most abundant resource, seawater, into drinking water.”
See how the second option sets the scene? The audience can imagine the people on the island. They can see the problem (not enough drinking water), and the solution (a method that will turn seawater into drinking water).
It adds a personal element to the presentation and gives the audience a holistic vision at the outset.
Define Key Terminology
In the example above, you can see that my brother explained what “nuclear desalination plant” means. It’s a method used to turn seawater into drinking water.
You can’t tell from the example, but he left a pause after he used the terminology; like this:
“We designed a nuclear desalination plant [PAUSE] which sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but essentially…”
The reason I suggested he pause is that as soon as the HR lady that was assessing him (i.e. not an expert in the area) heard the term “nuclear desalination plant,” there was likely to be about a two-second window during which she thought “what the — ?”
Leaving a pause gives that terminology time to sink in, and it means whatever you were about to say in that two-second window doesn’t get lost in the abyss.
Plus, adding a short phrase like “this sound like a bit of a mouthful, but — ”, or “this sounds technical, but — ”, or “this sounds complicated, but — ” is a good way to show empathy, and let the audience know you understand them, and you’re going to help them understand you.
Include a ‘Contents’ Slide and Leave Room for Questions at the End
People like it when you manage their expectations. They like to be told what you’re going to tell them before you actually tell them. Bear this general structure in mind when you’re planning your presentation:
1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them
2. Tell them
3. Tell them what you’ve told them
Provide a structure for them to follow in their heads as they’re listening. It’s a good way to bring them on the journey with you and keep them engaged.
Perhaps most importantly of all — tell them ‘there will be room for questions at the end.’ The last thing you want when you’re trying to keep calm and collected and focused on the message you need to deliver is to have someone raining their hand to interject with questions. It’ll only make you more nervous and increase the chances of losing your trail of thought.
So just clarify at the outset that they’ll have the opportunity to ask questions at the end.
Scrap the Script
I know this is probably the last thing you want to read, but seriously, scrap the script. By all means, use it when you’re practicing; reading it out loud will help you memorize what you need to say at certain moments, but once you’re comfortable, practice without the script.
Trust me — you know more than you think you know. If you’re using a PowerPoint presentation, the information on the slides will serve as prompts to guide you throughout.
You don’t have to say the exact same thing every single time you give the presentation; just explain what’s on the slide. You don’t need to read everything out, the audience can read for themselves. Just explain what you know about the information that’s there, and use it to guide you onto the next slide. Then, just repeat.
If you’re not using a PowerPoint presentation, and you’re nervous about forgetting your words, by all means, take notes — but don’t just read from them; use them as a back-up.
Some people like to summarize the main points on one side of A4 so that they can see the order of things. Other people prefer flash-cards. You can use these as you would the slides on a PowerPoint presentation; use one flashcard for every topic and move on to the next when you’ve finished.
Whatever you do if you’re using notes, don’t overcrowd the page. Write down bullet points that will serve as ‘triggers’ that remind you of the point you need to explain. They explain that point clearly, concisely, and feel free to change your wording. Trust me, by this point, you do know what you’re saying.
I’ve seen a lot of people suddenly panic and become flustered when they stumble on their words, or when they pause to think for a moment. They assume the audience will think they’ve tripped up and they don’t know what they’re talking about.
If you think about it, there are two obvious reasons why this is totally irrational:
1. The audience doesn’t know the script. They have no idea what you’re going to say. You could start to improvise altogether and they would have no way of knowing (unless you go completely off-piste and start to talk about something random; don’t do that).
2. When you have a normal conversation with someone, there are times when you forget a word, or you say the wrong word and just correct yourself, or you pause to think about something. These things are totally normal things to do; it’s absolutely fine to stumble on a word, so just chill. Pause, say it again clearly in case they didn’t hear, and keep going.
Be Aware of Your Body Language
You know the drill; it’s the basics: keep your shoulders back, your chin high, and use your hands to add emphasis to key points. Also, importantly, look at the audience!
Whatever you do, don’t rock from side to side, or back and forth. I hate to say it but it makes you look either crazy or in desperate need of the toilet. Plant your feet firmly on the ground.
There are only three reasons why your feet should be moving:
1. You’re pointing/gesturing at a particular point in the presentation and you want to leave room for the audience to see.
2. You’re confident enough to walk from one end of the stage to the other (on occasion) to maintain engagement with different parts of the audience.
3. An emergency — e.g. a fire.
Otherwise, keep your feet still.
Use PowerPoints as a Visual Aid, Not a Script
Any graphs, tables, and words on the screen should serve as a road-map, not a road-block. You don’t want to get stuck in the minutia of every single detail; you want to use the information on the slide to help you tell the story you’re telling.
If there’s a graph or a table or a diagram, define the axis or the columns and rows. What are we looking at? What’s on the left? What’s on the right? What’s along the bottom, and what’s on the top? Then broadly — what can we see and what does this mean?
Give the audience the information they need to interpret what they need to interpret from this, explain it briefly, and move on. If it doesn’t add to the story, don’t go into detail.
Practice, Practice, and Practice Again
No one single piece of advice will help you more than this. You simply need to practice over and over again until you’re confident that you know what you’re saying better than anyone else.
Ask a friend or a family member to watch you and give you pointers. If you’re not confident enough at the start, just practice yourself. Practice in front of a mirror, or maybe even record yourself presenting and play it back.
Do whatever works for you. Just remember, not every round has to be the same. You don’t have to use the exact same wording every time. Go off-script, and feel free to change your explanation.
All you need to remember are the key points to your story, not the manuscript.
These points have served me well over the years, and I’m sure they can help you too.
Remember — you’re a teacher. Shine the spotlight on them, not on you. Focus on how you can best transmit the information so that your audience gains as much as they can from your presentation.
Think — how can you help them?