Obligatory Sports Metaphor Blog Post

As I’ve been coaching both new and seasoned business presenters, two particular athletic analogies have proven really useful. (Full disclosure: I know stuff about sports, but it’s hardly my pastime of choice.) See if these resonate with you, and use them to help with the emotional/mental preparation you do to get ready to present.

To deal with nerves and manage energy. Nervousness with presentations seems to manifest itself in one of two broad ways: Either people’s nervous energy takes over, and they lose control of their voices and bodies—talking too much or too fast, running out of breath, making unwanted facial expressions, and/or moving their feet in odd ways, among other things; or, they pull inward as though their whole bodies have been Botoxed—they forget how to smile, their voices retreat into inaudibility, their arms are glued to their sides, and they speak in a monotone.

Our engagement techniques—eye contact and pausing—help immensely once the presentation begins. But in the moments before you get up to speak, think about athletes. If you play(ed) a team sport, remember that moment between leaving the locker room and taking the field? The coach has pumped you up, you and your teammates are of one mind, your muscles are warm, and you are ready to explode into the game. You have nervous energy, sure, but it’s a good thing. It’s what will keep you pumped up but in control, jazzed enough to run up and down the court and steady enough to sink a three-pointer when the ball comes your way. This is the feeling you want just before you present. Turn that nervous energy to your advantage to keep yourself engaged, loose, and playing your best game.

To get comfortable with eye contact (or pausing, but mostly eye contact). Some of our learners have taken public speaking classes in the past and were told things like, “scan the room” or “look at the tops of people’s heads,” so it appears you are making eye contact. To be truly engaged, you must make real eye contact and connect with your listeners. Often, when I prescribe eye contact as someone’s primary engagement technique, they tell me they understand in theory how it can work, but it’s really uncomfortable to do. This is when I talk about baseball (or golf or tennis).

When you’re a kid messing around in your backyard, all you do is grab the bat and stand kind of like you’ve seen on TV. If you’re naturally athletic, you might hit it pretty well, and you’ll keep that batting stance because it works for you. If you then start to play Little League and meet up with a batting coach, it’s highly likely he will change your stance—bending your knees more, moving your hands down on the bat, holding it higher or further from your body than you’re used to. Initially, you balk at this because it feels weird. You won’t have any power or control, your wrists hurt, and should you really be feeling your butt muscles this much playing baseball? Over time though, you get used to the new stance and discover you not only have more control, but you get better distance, speed, and height on the ball.

Eye contact and pausing work the same way. At first, it feels weird and like all the stuff that’s worked okay for you in the past is being taken from you. But over time, you’ll discover that you’re getting noticeably better: more in control, more engaged, more conversational.

And you’ll be knocking it out of the park on the regular.

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About the Author: Barbara Egel

Barbara Egel is an experienced trainer and presenter who has worked in a variety of fields from qualitative consumer research to children’s multimedia publishing. In each of her roles, Barbara has specialized in helping people get comfortable in situations that, at least at first, are uncomfortable. This includes helping fiction writers get comfortable writing code and enabling marketers and product developers to talk directly with their customers. Most recently, Barbara was Vice President at Primary Insights, Inc., a boutique qualitative research consultancy. She currently is on the faculty of Harold Washington College in Chicago, where she teaches writing. At Turpin Communication, Barbara is a workshop coach and was the developmental editor of The Orderly Conversation. She has degrees from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University.

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