Even under the best of circumstances, it can be intimidating to make a presentation. Public speaking is a major source of anxiety for many professionals, whose worries may range from feeling underprepared, anticipating difficult questions, or assuming that the technology will have some (or many) glitches.
And that's on a good day. A bad day for many of us is when some or all of the above happens -- and your boss is in the audience.
It makes sense to feel concerned. Whether you have a terrific relationship with your boss, a terrible one, or something in between, a power differential exists. According to Research in Organizational Behavior, "power refers to asymmetric control over valued resources."
Going into a presentation (already a high-pressure situation) knowing that one person in the room can restrict or release your access to valued resources -- like money, time, staffing, or career advancement -- can significantly hike up your stress level. And while some amount of stress in a presentation can be helpful as a catalyst to make sure you're prepared, practiced and polished, too much can cause everything from panic attacks to gastrointestinal pain.
Here are five strategies for delivering a confident, competent presentation without getting rattled by your boss:
1. Consider your presentation a career booster, not a career ender.
Is it possible that a bad presentation will go on your "permanent record"? Sure.
Is it likely that a bad presentation will be the sole reason you lose your job, have to quit the industry, and end up living in your parents' basement? No.
Your mindset matters when it comes to a presentation. You get to choose whether you see this opportunity as an exciting chance to demonstrate your commitment to and passion for the work and the company, or whether you see this presentation as "one strike and you're out."
Let's put it another way: If a bad presentation gets you fired, chances are you were on the way out the door anyway.
2. Ask yourself, "What keeps my boss up at night?" and address it.
It could be meeting next quarter's sales goals, implementing a potentially divisive change campaign, or even making her own boss look good. When possible, acknowledge that her pain point is your pain point, and show how your presentation addresses it. This demonstrates empathy and shows that you're thinking like a boss.
3. Know the weakest part of your presentation -- and fix it in advance.
Inevitably, there will be one or two parts of your presentation you're hoping your boss won't notice because the data is mixed, the timing is questionable, or the feasibility is TBD. Assume she will notice.
Put extra time into working to make your weakest link stronger, and also be prepared to address it head on if and when your boss calls you on it. Whatever you do, don't fudge your answer. Tell the truth -- and then communicate your concrete, timely plan for improvement.
4. Don't stare down your boss.
Unless you and your boss are the only two people in the room, make sure to make eye contact that is inclusive and engaging of everyone in the room. It's natural for your gaze to go towards to key decision maker in the room, the person with the most power, the individual whose body language and facial expressions you care about most.
Fight that natural instinct to let your boss' eyes be the soul focus of your attention. Locking eyes with your boss (or anyone, frankly) without looking away will be uncomfortable for both of you.
Sustained eye contact tends to signal either confrontation or intimacy -- neither of which is appropriate for a presentation. Make your boss one of the people you connect with, but not the only one.
5. Make your colleagues look good.
You might be tempted to use this presentation as a way to show off how smart you are. Don't do it.
All you need is for one person in the room to ask you a question you don't have the answer to, or to challenge your data, or offer information you weren't privy to, and you will have undermined your mission (and embarrassed yourself). At the beginning of your presentation, make sure to acknowledge your colleagues' expertise and contributions, and set the expectation that there are others in the meeting who may also be able to share their insights and experiences.
And then, invite them to do so. You'll look like a team player to your boss, and you'll have given your co-workers an opportunity to shine, too.