Learning To Present With Confidence

A woman in a striped dress with notes in hand, on stage looking out at a sea of faces in an auditorium
Photo by Product School / Unsplash

If there is one fear that is almost universally understood, it is the thought of public speaking - and yet, leading presentations is often integral to our professional lives. Statistical estimates range from 40% - c.75% of people who report high levels of anxiety when faced with this task.  In fact, so many people have highlighted public speaking as their greatest fear in surveys, that it even led to serious academic studies to assess whether it could be true that we fear public speaking more than death! You can open the link for more information on these and other similar studies on the topic - but the key message is: if you are one of those who shudder at the very thought of giving a presentation, first and foremost, be assured that you are not the only one! You are in very good company!   Even those who are great at delivering excellent speeches have most likely still experienced serious nerves at one time or another about public speaking.  

However, it is encouraging to also remember that we do not have to accept this state of affairs. Even if memories from your last experience of public speaking make your toes curl, it does not mean that delivering presentations always has to feel so awful! No one is born an amazing speaker, this is a skill which can be learned and practised, just like many others!

And there is good reason to put in the effort of overcoming the fear.  Academics have identified that social anxiety disorders hold us back in a very tangible way. For example, a study by the University of Columbia found that social phobias impair wages, graduation rates and ability to obtain leadership positions by 10-15%!

Graph showing impairment of wages 10%, college graduation10% and Management O=position 15% from social anxiety disorder

Knowing that the downside of doing nothing is real, we can be confident that there is plenty potential for a positive return on investment from taking the time to focus on improving your communication skills!

Facing the threat - Evolutionary biologists believe that challenging experiences such as public speaking trigger physiological responses in our bodies based on the automatic fight-or-flight mechanisms in our nervous system.  These physiological response systems were originally designed to protect us from physical threat.  The associated underlying fears about feeling exposed (vulnerable to attack from other humans or predators like sabre-toothed tigers and giant mammoths), and the risk of negative judgement leading to social isolation - could have been fatal in prehistoric conditions. The good news is that today, whilst we may still experience the sensations,

A prehistoric threat - sabre-toothed tiger

we have a choice over how to interpret these tell-tale signs of physical distress and control their impact our performance. Just knowing that the sweaty palms, dry throats and heart racing faster than a hunting cheetah are all part of a perfectly natural process - designed to help sharpen the senses and focus the mind rather than hinder us - can help us to avoid panic setting in every time we feel triggered!

Researchers found that people who report enjoying presentations are no less likely to experience physiological symptoms. The difference for them is the story they are telling themselves about what these symptoms mean, which changes their outlook and enhances ability to override the signals, get out there and just do it!  So, next time you feel nerves kicking in try telling yourself  a different, more positive narrative. Get comfortable that mistakes may happen and that not everyone may laugh at your jokes.

'No wonder my heart is racing - I'm so excited! I wonder what will happen next!'

As with any other skill, our level of comfort in presenting is also dependent on our level of practise and preparation. If you have always feared public speaking, the chances are that you have not done it very often!

It was only in recent years when talking with a speech therapist about my own past difficulties in speaking out that I came to understand just how little practise I had actually ever allowed myself in speaking.  From a very young age, I'd taken on the persona of being shy, and hid myself to avoid being singled out.  No wonder I was then uncomfortable when forced into the limelight and expected to lead!  We learn by doing and since I had completely avoided speaking out at every opportunity, I had not given myself a chance to build up any track record of success, reinforcing my belief that it was not something I could do.  It was very satisfying recently to have been mistaken for a teacher because I was 'so good at speaking' - a compliment that was unthinkable in years gone by!  

"Excellence does not require perfection" - Henry James

Remember that you don't have to reach perfection overnight. I can still stutter and stumble and be a bag of nerves at times! It's important to teach your body that you are safe, so find a first step that works for you.  It may be practising with friends or family, reading a pre-printed script or performing as part of a group so that you can gain some practise while feeling less exposed.  For me, learning to project my voice through singing, joining choirs, performed set readings and practising often in front of small groups helped me get over the worst of my fears.  Once you have practised the same task a number of times, the original terror does start to dissipate!  

There are various of aspects to developing yourself in this area but a few common suggestions for a good presentation are noted below...

  1. Remember why you are there - focus on the message not the process
  2. Know your audience - speak in their language and aim to connect and serve - it will not only help shape your speech, it also takes your mind off own nerves!
  3. Keep eye contact - 3 seconds is recommended
  4. Familiarise, don't memorise - word for word delivery becomes dull and staccato very quickly and can create a false sense of security that then becomes difficult to adapt if circumstances change.
  5. Accept that you will not reach perfection! There is always room for improvement.
  6. Keep it short - TED suggests 18mins is optimal for holding attention
  7. Get some honest and constructive feedback from a trusted friend - then keep practising so that you can fine tune your performance for your next big moment!
  8. Tell stories and use visual imagery - we remember far better what we see and feel rather than long, dull explanations or dense text and facts and figures on a slide.

If you need further support overcoming unhelpful ingrained thinking patterns about presenting and developing your skills in this area, then coaching and mentoring can help. Reach out any time and we will be happy to hear from you - book a session via Coaching Services (confidencecollaborative.com)

Maggie and Joanne