It's hard to imagine a presentation more high-pressure than a TED Talk. Your audience has paid thousands of dollars to be there and is accustomed to hearing from some of the world's best speakers and most accomplished celebrities. You know you'll be limited to a very brief time slot, which is never longer than 18 minutes and could be as short as three minutes. Just to make sure you don't go over, two large digital clocks will count down the time you have left in huge red numbers from both sides of the stage.

But the folks at TED, who have lots of experience coaching nervous speakers, have found a six-word sentence that makes almost every presenter feel better. Here it is: "Everyone here is on your side." Why is this such a powerful way to calm a nervous speakers' butterflies? To begin with, it's usually true. Speakers often feel like the audience is out to get them, doesn't want to hear they have to say, and may be hoping that the speech will be a failure.

In most cases, the opposite is true. People view their time as precious and limited, so once they've invested the time to come to your presentation, they are likely hoping that it will turn out to be a good investment, that they'll get something useful out of being there, and that they'll enjoy the experience as well. A failed presentation is no fun for the presenter, but it's not much fun for the audience either.

A gift for your audience.

The other reason "Everyone here is on your side," is such powerful advice is that it goes to the core of TED's advice about how to give a successful speech, which is that your speech should be a gift to the audience. In other words, boosting your profile, earning a speaker's fee, bringing in new customers, and all the other motivations that might have brought you onstage won't help you give a successful presentation. Your goal should be for your audience to learn something they need to know (as opposed to something you want them to know). You should want them to feel happier, more inspired, or more determined to take action than they did when they walked in the room. If you accomplish that, you'll have given a successful presentation, even if they don't realize how smart you are--even if they forget your name once the presentation is over.

If you feel like the audience is your enemy, it will be that much harder for you to focus on giving them what they most need or want. It's tough to be generous with a group of people you believe are waiting eagerly for you to fail. This is why TED often coaches speakers to think of themselves as simply talking to their friends.

It's an incredibly valuable approach because even if you are making a presentation to a hostile or skeptical audience--let's say you're making a pitch to investors or customers who aren't predisposed to invest in your company or product--treating the audience as a friend will benefit you more than getting riled and projecting hostility back at them.

Find friendly faces.

With that in mind, TED curator Chris Anderson has some simple advice: Look for friendly faces. If you can't imagine the entire audience as your pal, try to pick out a few people who are making eye contact and seem to be receptive to what you have to say. Try to find friendly faces in different parts of the audience, he advises. If you keep rotating through them as you give your speech, the whole audience will feel like you're directing your attention to them, at least some of the time.

Do that, and you'll feel more relaxed and confident, and better able to be generous with your audience. And--whatever they were feeling when you began your talk--they really will be on your side by the time you end it.

Published on: Aug 12, 2019
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