How to prepare for that company presentation

As a product manager I do a lot of presentations in 1:1s, in front of my team, and to stakeholders. But there are only a few, rare opportunities to get up on stage and present to my business org or even in front of the whole company. This lack of experience makes presenting on the big stage nerve racking, especially since a company presentation means talking simultaneously to 200 members in the audience and a few hundred more coworkers worldwide.

Last year, I talked at a company all-hands for the first time and I recall going through several strange sensations:

  • Being blinded by the cone of light that showers down on you from the spotlight
  • Feeling the anticipating stares from hundreds of faces, including those from your CEO and COO, burn into your cheeks
  • Hearing an unnatural version of your voice boom out of the speaker system

All of these feelings combined to create an out-of-body experience, like I was a puppet moving to the rhythm of a script and all the words that I had agonizingly refined and memorized were coming out like a language I’ve never spoke before. It took almost 30min after the presentation for my nerves to calm down.

Almost a year later, I went on stage for the second time, and while still frightening, it felt much more comfortable. Partly because I can anticipate the sensations of being on stage, but more so because I’ve learned a few ways to prepare.

Practice, practice, practice

My presentations to the company have been short, about 5min and 1.5min respectively, and yet I practiced religiously over 20 times for each.

I would first practice a few times recording myself with my computer and rewatching the videos to check on my enthusiasm, enunciation and tone.

When I watch my recordings, I notice all the little “um-s,” “uh-s,” coughs and sniffs I make between sentences, of which I consciously avoid when practicing afterwards. I also try to pay attention to my body language. If I see my hand moving like an inflatable arm flailing man, I try to turn each gesture into something that’s intentional, meaningful and helps visually illustrate the point I’m making, such as making a circular motion when I talk about “encompassing all the customers.”

When I feel ready, I would do a few test runs in front of different audiences like my manager, supportive peers and the organizers of the company meeting. The feedback I get are always incredibly valuable.

Finally, when I’m satisfied with both the content and communication style, then it’s all about finessing the delivery and increasing the comfort level.

Get past everything but the stage fright

You can’t avoid the stage fright, it’s part of the fight-or-flight defense mechanism built into our reptilian brain, but you can remove all other unease associated with presenting.

Presenting is an unnatural way of communication. With each bad habit we force ourselves to remove, our speech becomes less organic and more uncomfortable. It’s a little like pretending to be someone you are not.

That’s why I practice enough times so that the carefully architected words and body language cues come out as naturally as possible. I do it at every chance I get: quietly on the subway home, in front my couch and in the empty auditorium early in the morning and late at night.

There are also lots of little environmental constraints to get familiar with, like talking while holding a microphone, standing on a stage and looking down, and turning your head at wide angles to make visual contact with your entire audience.

To further combat the dread of being on stage, I try to leverage humor wherever I can, not just because I think it makes me look good, but a laugh from the audience can noticeably reduce your stage fright. Once the crowd laughs, you feel like you’ve already won them over — they are now your adoring fans instead of menacing judges.

Enjoy it

Unless you are a public figure or an executive, you don’t get opportunities like this often, so it’s important to soak up all the smiles and appreciation you get both when you are up there and afterwards. Doing so will boost your confidence for the next time.

At the end of it all, the best reward is a compliment from your coworker on a job well done.

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