Don’t Imagine People Naked
And other presentation advice that actually changed my life
By Courtney Jordan
For me, the dread of public speaking is on par with my childhood fear of getting a tetanus shot at the doctor, but without the rush of accomplishment or a prize drawer. I love to chat one-on-one, or even in a small group, but presenting to more than a handful of faces, especially in any kind of evaluative setting, makes me borderline black out. I mean like mom’s spaghetti. I lose control of my “ums,” I fidget with my hair, and consider faking a death in the family to escape having to do it altogether. This has always been true for me, and in part what led me to an editorial career; I didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I always saw myself as a behind-the-scenes type.
However, what the figurative they don’t always tell you is that in almost any career, you’ll come up against presentations that are necessary in order to convey ideas and move ahead. When faced with the challenge in graduate school to present my final capstone to a panel of highly influential industry professionals, I began to agonize before the semester had even started. Knowing this challenge could make or break my entire academic career, I aimed to equip myself like never before. I read articles on public speaking. I read books, eBooks, and listened to audiobooks. I even spent time with a professional public speaking coach. From all my research, I’ve cherry-picked the advice that has actually made a difference for me. As tired as it sounds, you can be a successful public speaker, you just have to forget everything you thought you knew.
1. Don’t make flashcards.
For most of my life, preparing for a presentation meant creative curation of flashcards. I thought the preparation helped my memory and in a pinch would prompt me. But flashcards have too much real estate. Almost everyone writes too much, too small (or messy), and their cards get out of order if there’s even one slide they can present without a prompt. But, my advice isn’t to bring nothing. Just bring less. Instead of a mini-deck of flashcards, put everything on a single sheet of paper. Your notes should be typed, one-sided, and fit above the crease of a single piece of paper folded hamburger style. This advice helped me shrink down my prompts, eliminate errors, and focus on my verbal delivery.
2. Don’t stand at the podium.
Standing behind a podium allows you a false sense of security. With most of your body hidden, you tend to slouch or lean, and while there’s no harm no foul if the audience can’t see you, you’re immediately discrediting yourself with body language. Standing, or better yet walking, in clear sight conveys confidence and brings awareness to your presence that is necessary to relay your excitement.
3. Don’t be too formal.
Presentations, especially important ones, can feel like an entirely different form of communication, but it’s important to remember that you’re still speaking to fellow humans. Your personality is just as important during a presentation as it is when speaking one-on-one. Consider what kind of presentations you personally enjoy. Presentations that feel approachable, colloquial, and (dare I say) fun, have a much better chance of leaving an impression than a presentation that drones on in severe detail. Remember that no one has ever said “I’m so glad that presentation was so formal.” Get real.
4. Crack a joke.
When people are nervous, they often have a social technique that they fall back on. Personally, I tend to crack jokes as a way to take the temperature of a group of people I’m a little less comfortable with. Starting your presentation with a personal anecdote, joke, or even a cartoon related to the topic at hand, allows you to personally feel more relaxed, but also shows that you aren’t there to just deliver facts, you’re there to relay a feeling and make a human connection.
5. Be early.
What scares me the most about presentations is not knowing how I’m coming off to my audience. Do they like me? Do they get me? This is an uncertainty that comes with the unknown. Presenting to total strangers makes it difficult to know how to act. One of the best methods I’ve found to combat this is do whatever possible to create familiarity with people in your audience. Coming early to meetings to chat casually with those you’ll be presenting to gives you an extra chance at a good first impression and allows you some common ground to stand on when presenting.
5. Don’t focus on eliminating ‘um’.
The more you think about it, the more it seems to happen. This typically happens because you have a sense of urgency to continue speaking or to answer a question quickly, making ‘um’ extremely common as a prefix to sentences. My personal millennial opinion is that ‘um’ does not discredit the value of most verbalized thoughts and often makes speech seem much more natural, but it’s the reality that its distracting and discounting to many audience members. When you’re planning to answer a question or need a couple seconds to think, TAKE THEM. The two second pause in between your thoughts conveys thoughtfulness and preparedness, not indecision.
6. Don’t worry about details.
It is a common pitfall to think extremely linearly about your presentation. You memorize facts and details in an order that helps you deliver information in full. However, if your presentation allows time to answer questions, don’t focus on covering every last detail. Conveying the gist with clarity and focus is better than backtracking and adding in out-of-place details. If there’s something the audience wants to know, they’ll ask.
9. Get excited.
This one requires some mental focus, but it’s perhaps the most important advice I’ve received. Feelings of anxiety and stress that you experience before a presentation occur because you’re focusing on all the ways you might mess it up. Instead, focus on the opportunity at hand. What is the best possible outcome from this presentation? Is it a high grade, a sale, a new job offer? Focusing on the presentation as an opportunity for something great, rather than a moment of possible failure allows you to turn your anxiety into excitement, helping you deliver your presentation with enthusiasm.