I used to get so nervous about public speaking that I would stop eating and feel so sick and as a result, the presentation would be just awful. TERRIBLE. Which, of course made me dread the next time I'd have to do it. In fact, most of us feel this way, but recently, I broke the cycle and got a lot better at it.
Last week, I gave a talk at an event called Future of Making at the Central Research Laboratory and the feedback I got from the organiser was “you’ve obviously had a lot of practice at speaking to audiences, you were excellent.” So how on earth did I get to this point from a quivering mess? Let me share some simple ideas that worked for me.
Speaking is a craft that I’m still learning and have in no way perfected but my point is that you need to stop telling yourself and others that “I’m awful at giving presentations” or “I hate speaking”. The moment of realisation that it is possible to improve was a massive turning point for me.
How do you get better? My main message is a rather obvious one: practice as much as you can and you WILL get better. Do it badly, do it often and get loads of feedback. Even if it feels you can’t take it all in at once, it will eventually subconsciously manifest itself through your presentation mannerisms. Doing it over and over will also help you get over yourself and realise that you don't have to worry about being perfect. Which will actually make you much, much better.
However, WHEN to practice is less obvious and a method that I’d like to highlight. If you think that there aren’t any opportunities to present often at work, you need to peer through a magnifying glass. Even examining the language you use when you’re showing your boss or colleague an update on your work can make all the difference. Try to be succinct in what you say and avoid negative words such as ‘just’ or ‘sort of’. Being more assertive in these tiny interactions will really translate when you stand up to present in front of more people.
I started learning this when I began going to streams of meetings with potential clients - it forced me to find the positives in every aspect of the venture and present them in a rounded and comprehensible way. As I became more confident in my ability to turn my unruly, haphazard ideas into coherent and compelling phrases, my public speaking got dramatically better.
When I was invited to do a TEDx talk last year I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. It turned out that a book called Talk Like TED (which you should totally read) wasn’t a bad place to start. It mostly taught me the valuable lesson of seeing a talk not as a string of facts and figures you must memorise, but instead a story which you’re leading the listener through to help them understand your message.
This change in mindset took a lot of the pressure off as suddenly I was having a chat with the audience and not giving a presentation. It’s a lot harder to mess up a chat with someone than it is a scary presentation. When you realise that it’s not about how YOU come across presenting something, but about a STORY far bigger than you, the words start to flow and you paint a picture which enables the audience to blur you and bring the message into focus. Which is the whole point, right?
My point is: worry less about giving a good presentation and focus more on really knowing the story that you’re telling - once you know it, the words will come easily and you will not need notes. Practice using positive language when you can and be a great storyteller instead of a good presenter. Oh and keep reminding yourself that it's just a silly presentation and there are far bigger things to worry about. So take a deep breath, embrace the adrenaline kick and, I promise, it will fall into place.