Personal Development

Fighting Lizards: How to overcome nerves when presenting

Recently, I presented at an event for I Spy Marketing, the search and conversion agency. I spoke on the theme of re-marketing to unconverted visitors using behavioural targeting. By all accounts, the presentation went well and the feedback I received from attendees was positive.

However, in the days leading up to the event, the thought of presenting made me incredibly nervous. That in itself is not uncommon – most speakers experience butterflies – but public speaking has never featured particularly high on my ‘Top 5 ways to spend an afternoon’ list.

The funny thing is, once it’s all over, I do sometimes wonder what the fuss was about!

Whilst preparing for my presentation, I learned a lot about why I get nervous and how to overcome my nerves when presenting. I found the process so valuable I thought I’d share it, just in case it can help you too.

So here goes. My not so definitive guide to overcoming nerves when presenting. It’s a story of two parts.

Part 1: Preparing your presentation

Taming the Lizard brain

This may sound strange but trust me, I’m not making this up. According to Seth Godin in his book Linchpin, there is a pre-historic part of our brain that tries to keep us out of harms way. It’s been looking out for us humans since the beginning of time, telling us when things get hairy to fight or flight.

It’s the part of your brain that tells you not to stick your neck out – for heaven’s sake don’t get up in front of this ferocious crowd of people and tell them what you think! What if they say you’re wrong? What if you fluff your lines? They’ll be out for blood, the sky will fall and you’ll look silly.

It’s the Lizard brain that says no to public speaking opportunities. It would rather you hid away. Godin believes you should seek out discomfort:

“Discomfort brings engagement and change. Discomfort means you’re doing something that others were unlikely to do, because they’re busy hiding out in the comfortable zone

So if you’re nervous about public speaking, just do it. You might not like it, but you’ll get value from it, you’ll learn and grow and it will get a little easier each time.

It’s a good book, worth the read.

Knowing your subject is better than memorising your speech

It’s pretty difficult to memorise a 30 minute speech. In fact, in trying to do so, you may just end up causing yourself more stress. You’d be far better off ensuring you have a good understanding of your subject than being able to recite your presentation word-for-word.

You can forget a line and it won’t matter. You can be interrupted by a question or be taken off on a tangent and it won’t faze you, because you know your stuff and you can adapt and work your way back on track.

Break and practice in segments

I discovered an excellent article by Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) that covers the subject of preparing for a speech. His approach is to break his speech down into segments and rehearse them all separately. He never learns the speech verbatim but he does memorise the first and last 2-3 lines of each segment.

I found this technique very useful, especially in regards to the introduction. For me, it’s the most nerve wracking part of a presentation – no one wants to look a bumbling fool in front of an audience – so having this squared away is reassuring.

Oh yes, and practise out loud and at the same vocal level you would use during the presentation itself. You don’t want to hear it for the first time in a ‘live’ environment and discover it’s stilted and doesn’t flow.

Tell a story

Using a story can really help structure your presentation and aid comprehension for an audience. We’re not talking Three Little Pigs here (though I sure that would make a great analogy somewhere). Instead, paint the picture for your audience, give them context, let them relate your story to theirs; show them how they too can have a happy ending.

But keep them wanting more. This is the Cliff Notes edition not War & Peace.

(Plus if you’re nervous and lose your track, it’s easier to find your way back if you can remember the story)

If you want to learn how to structure using stories, head back over to the Tim Ferriss post to check out his Point-Example-Point and Example-Point-Example approach. Works a dream.

Prompts not essays

I’ve witnessed a nervous speaker reading, head down, directly from several pages of A4 notes and whilst I feel for the guy, it doesn’t make for a good presentation. If you need notes, use little prompt cards. It’s inevitable when you’re nervous that you’re going to forget what comes next at some point, so just make partial notes of the first line of each segment or the key points. This is all you’ll need as a little prompt to remember the line you’ve rehearsed.

Part 2: The day of the presentation

Be you

When you’re nervous it’s easy to regress into a monotone, expressionless robot, which makes it very difficult to engage the audience. People don’t go to seminars and conferences hoping to see someone mess up, so they’ll more than likely understand if you’re a little nervous. So try to relax a little and inject some of your personality into your presentation. A little self-depreciating humour or insight into your life can go a long way to making your presentation more interesting for the audience.

Testing, testing, 1-2-3

For piece of mind, arrive a little early and if possible, run through the technical set up of your presentation. If you’re running a Powerpoint presentation and need to switch to the web for a demo or an example at some point, make sure you can see for yourself that it all works. It probably will, but making sure will reassure you that you won’t be standing up there alone, appealing to the wings “Is this thing on?

And make sure you have a back up plan if technology fails on you. Can you deliver your presentation without the slides? If you know your subject, have rehearsed well and have your prompts, you should be just fine.

There’s no rush with public speaking

Final tip, make a concerted effort to speak slowly. If you’re nervous, you’re more than likely speaking faster than you normally would. Add in a pause when making a pertinent point, it gives the audience a chance to think and controls the rate you talk.

So there you go, my take on dealing with nerves when public speaking and making presentations. As I said, I’m no expert on giving presentations, but I am a bit of a semi-pro at feeling nervous giving them.

I hope you found the tips useful. Please do share any of your own. Improving how you handle your nerves when public speaking is a continuous process, so anything you can add from your own experience is most welcome.

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