I recently delivered a workshop for eight very nervous presenters. They were a great group and talked very frankly about their worries and concerns about presenting. Their nervousness stemmed from different things. For example,
- One of the presenters hated being the center of attention, so speaking to groups increased her anxiety.
- One was a non-native English speaker, unsure of her word choice.
- A few of them worried about losing their train of thought and spacing out during their presentations.
- Others felt intimidated by their audiences, having just moved into new roles requiring presentations to leadership.
While the causes of their nervousness were unique, each of them had developed the identical coping strategy—they all over-prepared. Each of them set out to nail down what they planned to say before the presentation began. Everyone scripted, most rehearsed, one found himself trapped in analysis paralysis as he struggled to make sense of marketing data.
As we’ve written in these articles, Practice Makes Perfect… Or Not and What We Wish Everyone Knew About Presentation Anxiety, this type of preparation, often purported to be the best way to reduce nervousness, doesn’t work in the business setting. What happens, as I saw with each of these presenters, was that they cut themselves off from their listeners. By relying on scripting and detailed notes, their presentations became monologues delivered by uncomfortable actors.
Along with their nervousness and tendency to over-prepare in reaction to it, this group shared another characteristic. When they were being videoed, they were completely unaware of themselves. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It wasn’t that they were unaware of bad habits. On the contrary, they were unaware of how good they were. After each person was videoed for the first time, their response to the question, “How did that feel?” was some version of, “That was terrible.”
- “That was terrible … I had no idea what I just said.”
- “That was terrible … I felt my voice shaking, and I stumbled on my words.”
- “That was terrible … I was so nervous I know I spoke too fast and just went on and on. I didn’t know when to stop.”
The thing is, the rest of us didn’t see any of this. Even though they were speaking off the cuff, none of the workshop participants appeared disorganized, unclear, or particularly nervous.
What was the takeaway from this? There were three.
- Never assume preparation will reduce nerves or guarantee success. What you need to do, especially if you’re a nervous presenter, is prepare for flexibility. Think about alternative explanations, different ways to make the same point.
- Greater flexibility builds confidence. If you’re familiar with our methodology, you probably guessed that each of these presenters defaulted to the Writer side of the Orderly Conversation. Writers tend to worry a lot about being accurate enough, about saying things they planned to say. They need to trust themselves more.
- As counterintuitive as it might be, it’s your connection to the audience that reduces nervousness. Begin your presentations by focusing on the individuals in the audience. Really see them and how they are responding to you. This will make your presentation feel like and be more of a conversation. It’s pretty much impossible to engage listeners when you’re reading or reciting a script.
There’s always a difference between how things feel to you during your presentations and how they appear to your audience. Sometimes this difference is slight. Sometimes it’s huge. With this group, it was the latter.
At the end of this workshop, one of these presenters said something that made my day: “What I’ve learned today is that I can do this. I don’t have to worry so much.”