Public Speaking is often named as one of the most common fears. Unfortunately, as an entrepreneur, doing presentations is most of the job. From pitching new clients, to pitching new ideas, to pitching yourself at the umpteenth networking event...
Before every pitch I think of what can go wrong. Is there something in my teeth? What if I forget what I'm going to say? Can they see me sweating? Should I have worn the red shirt?
If that's how I felt in front of people who thought I was smart, I could only imagine what it would be like in front of people who didn't know me. But comedians do this all the time. They tell jokes. To strangers. Sometimes they don't laugh. Sometimes they are laughed at.
Which is why I decided to try comedy. I figured if I faced this fear, then every other presentation would be a breeze. It worked. Sort of. After months of bruising my ego, I finally picked up a few tricks that improved my public speaking skills.
Don't Imagine the Crowd Naked
I don't know how this started, but this is the worst advice. First, I believe most human resource departments would have a few problems with it. More importantly, you should have problems with it. Do you really want to imagine Bob from accounting in boxers or briefs? How can you talk about this month's figures when his figure is now permanently imprinted in your psyche?
The better advice is to pay attention to a few people in the crowd. Find a few connections; someone on your team, someone who seems to be interested in what you're saying, or at least a friendly-looking face. Pretend you're having a conversation with the few of them. Periodically look around the room to make eye contact with others and/or find another connection, but then come back to these people when you're feeling exceptionally nervous.
Tell a Story
One thing stand up, improv, and sketch all have in common is that they tell a story - this is how you connect with the audience. I have to use facts and figures to tell clients why I'm the right one for the job. I used to give a sales pitch. Now I show them how they can be the heroes in their own company or field.
The story doesn't have to be funny, but it should be interesting. It should be genuine. If you don't believe the story, neither will your audience. I've seen comedians exaggerate and extrapolate on and on, sometimes with no jokes for minutes, but the audience is hooked. They want to know how the story ends. So find a way to tell a story. One way to do so is to say, "yes, and."
In improv, every time a member interacts with another, they must take the character or plotline that was given to them, and then add to the idea or move onto the next one. This is their YES (accepting the premise) and their AND (adding to the premise).
Use YES, AND if there's any type of interruption or distraction. Instead of ignoring people or getting rattled, think about how you can move on with it. This works with anything.
"I agree with you Mike, penguins do look like they're wearing tuxedos. Speaking of cold things, our December numbers are quite hot!"
Overall the main thing to remember is that you're not alone. Seriously, you're in front of people so try not to mess up. I'm kidding. You're not alone because everyone knows that public speaking is hard and terrifying and never goes as planned. But if you remember to connect with people, tell your story, and add to what people are saying, then the most of your fears won't happen. Just remember to wear the red shirt next time.
Morgan Landis is an entrepreneur, author, and activist. She is the owner of Contented Design, an agency focusing on storytelling, user experience, and systems/design thinking. She's been published on a variety of different subjects including her personal background in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul III. Her favorite talking points are about how people interact with each other and technology, and how we should all treat each other better.