How come I can speak to people normally but I get overwhelmingly nervous when giving presentations? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Jim Moore, Journalist (1971-present), on Quora:

When you are with your friends--and because they are your friends and are, therefore, self-selected--you enjoy a broader latitude of confidence in saying and doing things that you otherwise might not say or do so easily. You "get" them, and they "get" you. It is almost like a contract: "As friends, we all agree to tolerate each other's foibles, accept each other's mannerisms, agree to disagree when it comes to personal opinions, etc. We can be who we are without undue judgment." We're all in control here.

When you are away from your friends to small social or professional settings, you are still generally in control of how those around you see you, and you can get pretty fast feedback on whether or not you have done something boneheaded, gauche, or plainly insensitive.

You may misspeak, in the midst of a conversation, but -- in a small group -- you have a chance to back up, apologize, and start over. If you have a point to make to a small group, it's easy to keep eye contact, say what you want to say, judge the reactions, respond to questions, defend or expand on your position. You may not have complete control, but you do have enough control to keep a good back-and-forth relationship going on within a small group.

But, when you are given the task of addressing a large group, of making a presentation upon which you believe your very reputation and character hang, you involuntarily lose control of your otherwise confident, intelligent, capable self. I use the word "involuntary" because no one really chooses to lose self-control. What happens is you project on your future-self the worst case scenario because you are facing an unknown condition--podium panic.

Most people fear public speaking more than they fear death. We are frightened by the thought of rejection and ridicule. We don't know those people out the audience -- we believe they are there to judge us and to critique our clothes, our body, our every move, every cough, every long pause.

They are no longer friendly faces we can tease over a beer, or share a movie with, or go camping with. The audience becomes a nightmare of unknown outcomes, of running down dark alleys, even falling from a great height toward certain destruction. In the eyes of many inexperienced or nervous speakers, the audience is the crowd pressing against the base of the gallows and filling the square to see nothing less than an execution rather than an elocution. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In realty, the audience is so happy that they are not at the podium and they give you props right from the start for showing up in front of the microphone. They want you to succeed, and they are pulling for you to share your story, your knowledge, your presentation.

When I was a full-time speechwriter, I often counseled my clients about podium panic, and how to deal with it (note, I did not say eliminate it...that takes time and lot of practice, and even then, the best public speakers will often admit to the pre-speech jitters). I offered a logical and humane process for giving a speech that, when roughly followed, helped my speaker stay in his or her comfort zone. Here is a summary of that process:

What Makes a Good Speech?

Let's take peek at some of the basics - not an exhaustive list, but pretty complete for the most part.

1) It's a story - always

Whether you're speaking from a full text, outline, or bullets, there is a beginning, middle, and an end. Presentations follow this rule by their very nature: there's usually an opening slide, a series of explanatory slides, and a few closing slides, and maybe even a summary slide. Treat your presentation like a story you'd tell your kids, or friends.

How long should your remarks be? Since you mentioned presentation fright, I'm guessing that you are probably in front of your audience for 10-20 minutes with your presentation. Anything longer than that--TED speeches and major policy speeches and such are exceptions--you will lose your audience, so try to keep your remarks shorter than your audience's attention span (20-30 minutes is a fair range). Consider your delivery speed. Most people, when not nervous, speak at a rate of between 100-115 words per minute. That speed serves as a useful guideline for the word count of your speech: 1,000 words will cover about 10 minutes, 2,000 words, 20 minutes and so on.

2) Linear Timeline

Most Western/European audiences are linear in their thought processes. They want a sense of A-Z order in their speeches. Audiences will tolerate some back referencing but don't overdo it. Keep moving forward.

3) Shape the theme with a quote or story

A great opening quote or story is crucial to many speeches and can serve as the anchor for the speech. But you have to know your audience's reference points--what they may or may not respond to depends on a ton of personal and cultural baggage we all carry around. A quote from Heraclitus may fall completely flat; a quote from a current political figure may elicit a boo, while a quote from Jimmy Kimmel may work. Be careful with quotes is the bottom line. When in doubt, leave it out. Your humor won't bomb if it never leaves the bomb bay of your brain.

On the other hand, it is perfectly fine to share a few non-speech moments with the audience. Before you get started, take a moment to scan your audience for familiar or friendly faces. There are always a few people scattered around the room who just seem to want to connect with you--even if you don't know a soul in the crowd. Look at them for a moment; smile, maybe even nod; find two more and then make it a point to return to those three or four anchor faces during your remarks. Now, take a deep breath.

4) Plot points

When you step up to the podium, or are just standing in front of your audience--naked to the world and no solid piece of furniture to grab on to--remember these key times in your speech or presentation:

The first 7 seconds are crucial. Like good newspaper writing, your lead paragraph has to grab the audience--speech coachers will tell you that you have 7 seconds to make a good first impression.

The first 30 seconds is your window to get and keep your audience's attention. This is the short elevator speech. This is not the time for a joke or any kind of humor that has the potential to go horribly wrong. This is the time to make the salient points of your speech, or to introduce the key points of your presentation.

The first minute is the longer ride on the elevator--but not much longer, and you shouldn't squander these 60 seconds.

Use the first 30 seconds to hit the key points, and the last 30 seconds to say why the topic is important to the audience; the theme that will resonate and keep them sitting forward. If you can get your elevator speech under control, the rest will follow without too much difficulty.

Getting underway with the first third

You have accomplished a lot in your first minute. Really! You've gotten your mouth working, you've met a few eyes in the audience, you told everyone why you're there and what to expect. Pretty good. Remember to breathe.

As the first third of the speech or presentation gets underway, this is the time to give a longer (2-3 minutes) overview of the speech. Here is where you tell them what you're going to tell them. This part is like reading the dust jacket of a book while you're still at the books store (you remember books stores, yes?--okay, maybe it's like reading the sample of the novel on your Kindle). You give the audience the core elements but not the whole story.

[A note about pausing] Be sure to stop once in a while. Take a breath. Focus on someone in the audience. Resume. A pause has two purposes: it gives your mouth time to catch up with your brain, and it give the audience time to catch up with your brain. That is, a pause gives you and the audience time to process the past few minutes of remarks or visuals. Audiences generally retain about a fifth--20-percent--of what a speaker says, particularly if the speech is a fast run through many points. Your audience will retain more if you give them--and yourself--a break every now and then to cogitate over what you've told them, or what you've shown them.

Now you've reached the middle third of your presentation. This is where the speech or slide show has its core - the details. Make references to the theme, connect each slide or event or call to action to the initial image. Don't hold out the point of the speech until the last third. Audiences want the bottom line sooner rather than later. Try to give the crowd some early value.

[Important note!] If you are standing at a podium, remember to move; don't clutch at the sides as if you were on a storm-tossed rowboat. Move to the left and right from time to time, keeping one hand on the podium for comfort. Keep your hands out of your pockets--any coins you may have should be left off stage; don't look at your watch.

In the final third of your speech or presentation you should be hitting your summary of all that went before. This is a great time to go back to those members of the audience you identified earlier and focus on them as you make your final points, then slowly work across the audience, front to back. It is an truism of human nature that we remember the last then we heard more than the first thing--even if the first thing was the most important. Eye contact improves that outcome. Just a few lines to go over the key points. Enough to help the audience remember the core of the remarks. Remember this: most audience won't retain more than about 20 percent of what you've said. That's why the handouts of the presentation are so important, or links to a website where the slides or the video of the presentation can be found.

Finally, just say thanks. Don't get all gooey here. Just say, "Thank you." And there you are; You've done the heavy lifting.

I know this is a very short form speech lesson, but I hope it serves as a bit of a guide to help you get over your presentation worries--you're going to do a great job.

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Published on: Jul 13, 2017