Do you know what humans fear more than dying? No, not snakes on a plane. It's the other one -- public speaking. We hate it. Science says we hate it because we fear being ostracized by others. Surely, this fear can be traced back to our very early evolutionary roots, when hunters and gatherers would be left behind to fend for themselves if they used too many "ums" when addressing the clan.
Whatever the biological reason, many of us are stuck with this terrible aversion to getting up in front of other people and talking. This fear starts with a sudden wave of anxiety when you first learn that you'll need to make a presentation, and it can stick with you until after the dreaded talk is done. With this fear usually comes a glimmer of hope that, just maybe, this time will be different.
When I had a big presentation on the horizon recently, all of these familiar feelings of anxiety, excitement, and hope emerged. In early preparation I checked the necessary boxes: I thought about my audience and what they were coming to hear. I thought about what I wanted to say. And, of course, I put hours into my slides.
For past presentations, this is where my preparation would have ended. I might have read through those slides a couple of times, but that would be about it. Then I'd be at the front of the room giving my presentation out loud for the first time in front of people. My results varied widely. Sometimes, it'd be fine. More often, however, I'd trip and stumble over thoughts that, I realized only once I'd spoken them, didn't fall in a logical sequence. I'd second guess myself on the spot and try to fill in the gaps with tangential stories. When it was bad, it was really bad.
I knew that if this presentation was going to be different, I'd have to do something different in preparation. What one simple thing could I do to improve my confidence and improve the experience for my audience?
I'd have to rehearse. But how?
The answer I came up with (shown in this short video) was to practice in front of a live audience -- four audiences, in fact.
As I put the final touches on my draft slides, I scheduled one face-to-face practice presentation and three free webinars. I invited people from my network whom I (mostly) know and who are supporters. In the invite, I pitched it as an opportunity to refresh their personal and career goals. I gave the purpose of my talk -- personal goal planning and overcoming obstacles. The good thing about a universally appealing topic like this was that it wasn't too difficult to find people willing to spend an hour listening. After all, I wanted these presentations to be helpful to them too--not just a practice session for me.
I wrote my script and rehearsed as I normally would have by reading through my slides in my head, and then it was time to rehearse. What happened? Well, the results were mixed and the lessons learned were invaluable. The first session went well, and I attribute this to the relaxed atmosphere, an audience of people I know well, and the fact that I brought pizza. The second was a complete bomb. Both times I asked for direct feedback. With the participants' input I went back to my slides to smooth out the points I was stumbling on. I did two more online sessions, after which I felt that the material was really starting to sink into my brain. I was able to flow from one slide to the next more fluidly each time.
When you have a big presentation coming up, it's easy to lose focus and feel exposed, on edge, and even defensive. Public speaking is one of the most anxiety-filled activities that professionals have to do at one time or another in their career -- or a lot, depending on your business.
Like many things, when it comes to presentations, practice makes perfect. But not all practice is created equally. Powerful presentations start with practice in front of a live audience and constructive feedback.
I think this "just one thing" worked because the live audience forces you to really rehearse your material. Saying it out loud is worlds different from saying it in your head. The live feedback component can be nerve-racking, but it's a crucial part of making your presentation better, and you simply don't get that if you're practicing on your own.
I will definitely use this approach in the future for every presentation I do. It didn't cost me anything but four hours of time. The result was a solid presentation in front of the much larger, much less familiar live audience at a conference in New York. I felt more confident with how I was going to start, the places I needed to slow down and needed to add a breath, and where I could prompt the audience for questions. That confidence boost was well worth the hours of work.
You can do this too. Identify a presentation or pitch you have coming up. Think about the total time you want to devote to preparing to include everything from developing your outline, writing your slides, and rehearsing. I'd strongly suggest you borrow some of the time you'd typically devote to polishing your slides and reinvest that in the rehearsing part. The live practice will immediately highlight the areas in your slides that you need to focus on improving.
Speaking in front of other people -- especially large groups -- is one of the most common fears. It's an anxiety-filled activity for most of us, but it doesn't have to be so excruciating. You can up your confidence and your audience's experience by investing a little time in time in live rehearsals.
And for those of you who naturally dazzle a crowd, just imagine what you could do with a little bit of practice!