As a communication consultant working with presenters, facilitators, and trainers, I have a lot of interesting conversations with business leaders about their employees.
The conversations may go something like this: “Greg, I know John is smart. He has great ideas and is always willing to put himself out there, but in meetings, he doesn’t communicate clearly. He’s erratic, talks in circles, and apologizes for having an opinion. I’ve seen this happen a lot, and it’s causing his manager and peers to lose respect for him. How can you help me help him?”
Sometimes the conversations are like this: “When Mary and I talk in my office, she’s confident and clear. But when she presents at meetings, she falls to pieces. Mary is a high-potential employee, but her inability to speak to a group is holding her back. Can you help her?”
In both situations, people have lost the respect of co-workers because of their poor communication skills.
A few weeks ago, I was working with a woman who is the Administrative Assistant to the CEO. “Jan” is roughly 50 years old and in charge. She carries herself with a sense of authority.
At the beginning of the class, Jan participated fully in the conversation that I was facilitating. From the comfort of her seat, she spoke up, listened attentively to the others, and responded clearly and confidently. She displayed a great sense of humor too.
But then things changed.
Later in the class, we were doing an exercise in which everyone gets up in front of the room and introduces themselves to the group. Jan was last to volunteer. While this exercise always generates a few butterflies for people, Jan was a mess. She was very nervous and had tied herself into knots. She shifted her weight and looked down at the floor. Her voice was shaky, she became soft-spoken, and it sounded as if she were speed-reading through a script. Her sense of humor was gone. So was her personality.
Afterward, she described herself as having just had an out-of-body experience.
When I asked her if she remembered seeing anyone’s face, she responded, “No, not at all.”
When I asked her if that was a common experience, she confessed, “Yes.”
Jan had turned her focus inward.
In her attempt to defend herself against the presence (or even the hint) of nervousness, she made the situation worse. Much worse. She forgot that she was speaking to real people, turned her focus inward, and had a complete meltdown. Suddenly she was not the articulate, confident person I met earlier, but someone else entirely.
Jan’s experience is not unique.
If you’ve ever experienced anything like that (and who hasn’t), you know it’s real. And it’s debilitating.
The good news is that debilitating nervousness is not a permanent condition. In the brief time we had together, Jan learned to speak as clearly and confidently to the group as she normally does in low-stakes conversations.
The key is to think of presentations as conversations that are taking place with real people in real-time.
When Jan was nervous, she was speaking in a vacuum—unaware of her listeners and focusing solely on what she had planned to say. My solution was for her to turn her focus outward and speak to the individuals in the room. She needed to look people in the eye and actually SEE them. She needed to recognize their reactions and see how they were responding to her. When she did that, she was able to connect and respond.
The level of engagement that Jan achieved—something that happens automatically in everyday, low-stakes conversations—plays a crucial role in presentations. Although the people in the room are the cause of nervousness, presenters should not think of them as passive viewers whose sole responsibility is to judge. Presentations, like everyday conversations, are an exchange of information that can’t ever be perfect. When presenters focus on engaging their listeners, they’re able to break through the barrier of nervousness, turn their focus outward, and manage the process. This, in turn, makes them feel (and look) comfortable, confident, and in control.
Jan did that, and her improvement was astonishing. She became a person who would be respected in any presentation situation.