Nervous public speakers should not present

Anxious? Don’t present.

Over the past few weeks, my coaching calendar has been full of anxious presenters. Every single one of them is an intelligent, successful business person who’s earned the right to speak about their area of expertise.

Intellectually, they appreciate their “fit” to reach a given audience, and they know it’s an honor and/or opportunity to take the floor. But physically and emotionally, they have an entirely different response that intensifies the closer they get to that microphone moment.

If you ever feel a little antsy before speaking, you’ll recognize some or all of their complaints:

My mouth feels dry and sticky.
I can’t remember what I planned to say.
My palms sweat.
I get butterflies in my stomach.
My heart races.
I suddenly get the urge to pee.
My face feels hot.
I’d rather be anywhere else.

One man said with venom, “I detest presenting.” (Go back and read that quoted sentence again, with dramatic emphasis on the Ts. Hit them hard! He meant it.)

When coaching such a reluctant communicator, I can offer dozens of strategies to overcome the fear of public speaking. “Picture the audience in their underwear” does not make my Top 100. That’s just gross.

My favorite advice for nervous presenters is this:

If you’re afraid to present, don’t do it.

No, I’m not suggesting that these people shirk their responsibilities, explore alternative career paths, or call in sick on presentation day. I actually insist that they show up to speak—as soon and as often as possible. But I ask them to ditch the word “presentation” and replace it with “conversation.”

Most of us are quite comfortable participating in conversation. That’s how we exchange ideas and information all day long. We make small talk at the drive-thru window. We swap stories over lunch. We exchange questions and answers with colleagues and collaborators.

Conversation is how we communicate. It’s what we do.

In most coaching sessions with nervous presenters, I pause the discussion and ask how they’re feeling, physically and emotionally, right now. In response, I hear none of the complaints listed above. Palms, hearts and other body parts are fine. No one feels the urge to puke, pee, or flee. We’re just talking, and it’s all good.

So, I say, let’s find ways to turn your next “presentation” into a “conversation.” Not just by changing the word, but by orchestrating a communication experience that’s two-way from start to finish.

Of course the particulars depend on the message, speaker, audience, and moment, but here are 3 strategies that help transform presentations into conversations—and nervous speakers into confident communicators.

1. Get your audience involved ASAP.

When your audience is motionless and emotionless, you may be hard-pressed to muster much enthusiasm for your message. So, get those bodies and minds moving as soon as possible.

Whether I’m speaking for an hour or an entire day, my goal is to get the audience interacting within the first 5 minutes. Easy options include:

  • A round of quick introductions
  • A show of hands to gauge familiarity with your topic
  • An invitation to turn to a neighbor and share why you’re here

2. Invite questions early and often.

Is it conventional to reserve a few minutes at the end of a “presentation” for Q&A? Yes. But conversations follow a different rhythm.

Let’s say you have 1 hour to propose a new way to solve a problem, and you want the audience to know 3 advantages of your recommendation. You could organize a conversation in a series of segments that all include Q&A. Like this:

  • [10 min] Get quickly to the point by explaining your recommendation, then ask what questions your audience hopes the next hour of conversation will answer. You can capture these on a white board or flip chart; then, mark them off as you cover them, return to the list as part of your wrap-up, and/or use them to structure a written follow-up.
  • [15 min x 3] Cover the 3 advantages in 15-minute conversation blocks, allocating a few minutes to  share your point of view, then inviting comments and questions. Use a timer to stay on schedule.
  • [5 min] Restate your recommendation and its advantages. Verify that you’ve answered all the questions you can in the monent, and commit to follow up on those that require more thought or research.

3. Enlist a partner or team.

Whenever possible, collaborate. Sharing responsibility for the conversation with a co-communicator means you can:

  • Spend less time in the spotlight, giving your voice and nerves some relief
  • Count on your partner to catch the points you miss and watch the audience for raised hands or puzzled expressions
  • Share the burden of taking notes, managing technology, and tracking time

Interactive conversations are good for you AND for the people you’re trying to reach. Not only can these strategies ease your anxiety, they’ll make your audience feel more involved and connected with you and your message. And that’s good for business.

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