Ben was babbling. He didn't mean to babble. He didn't want to babble. But when he tried to run through his upcoming talk for Natalie, his presentation coach, out came gibberish.
"Sit down," Natalie said gently, "and tell me what you're trying to say." Without a moment's pause, Ben did just that, clearly explaining that his recently completed software project had yielded some valuable lessons that he wanted to share with the group. As he started to outline the lessons, Natalie interrupted him.
"What happened when you tried to say the same thing while you were standing?"
Ben started to look panicky. "I guess I was imagining the packed auditorium I'll be speaking in and I got so nervous, the words fell all over each other."
Natalie laughed. "That's a great image."
"But what am I going to do? I didn't ask to speak at the all-hands meeting. My esteemed director, Mr. You-Have-No-Choice, put me on the agenda. Twenty minutes. Egad!"
"I know it's hard to believe right now, but some day, you'll appreciate what a career-enhancing opportunity he's offered you."
"An opportunity to babble. Lucky me."
"My job is to help you become a confident, babble-free presenter. So let's start by discussing your nervousness."
"If I don't conquer it, I'm sunk," Ben said, sounding like he was sinking fast.
"First of all," Natalie said, "it's a good idea to memorize your opening comments, since that's when you're likely to be most anxious."
"Actually, I thought I'd memorize the whole thing."
"Absolutely not!" Natalie left no doubt that she was opposed to the idea. "It's difficult to memorize an entire presentation, even one that's only twenty minutes long."
Only twenty minutes? Ben thought. Only???
"Even if you're able to memorize it," Natalie continued, "all it takes is an unexpected question to make you lose your place. It's much better to think through each point you want to make-you'll have your slides to guide you-and be prepared to address each in your own words. Just memorize the opening few sentences."
"I have a better idea. How about if I just read my presentation?"
"Make that my second 'absolutely not.' Your goal is to sound conversational, not mechanical and robotic. Besides, reading a speech can be risky. Last month, I attended a conference at which a company VP read his presentation. He actually read one line three times before he realized he was repeating himself."
"But if I had a teleprompter ..."
"Dream on! Now, when it's your turn to present, take your place on the platform, take a deep breath, look to the back row of the auditorium, and speak to the people back there. Beginning this way will help you sound confident-and if you sound confident, you'll feel confident."
"I can't imagine feeling confident. Maybe I'll just tell the audience that this is my very first presentation and I'm nervous."
"Not a great idea. Tell them you're nervous and instead of listening to you, they'll be watching for signs of nervousness. And they'll see signs even if they're not there."
"But what if I don't tell them I'm nervous, but I am anyway?"
Natalie looked Ben in the eye. "The key to avoiding an overwhelming level of nervousness is to practice, practice, and practice some more. It's the single most important thing you can do. The better prepared you are, the more confident you'll be."
"So experienced speakers don't get nervous?"
"Actually, sometimes they do. But many experienced presenters find that a mild undercurrent of nervousness actually energizes them and adds enthusiasm to their presentations. So, to a certain extent, nervousness is your friend."
"Ah, my BFF, nervousness."
"If you feel some anxiety once you're into your presentation, slow down and speak a little louder. Speaking a bit louder masks the nervousness and projects confidence."
"For sure, I'll be the loudest presenter they've ever heard."
"More likely, you'll know your material so well by the time of the meeting that you'll wow the audience."
"So, what else are you going to help me with?"
"I'll review the content of your presentation for clarity and organization. And I'll make sure your slides aren't like the eye-straining ones I see so often."
"Great," Ben said. "I'll have terrific content and perfect slides. But what else can you tell me about actually presenting?"
"A lot of things. For example, people can't listen to you and read your slides at the same time, so when you show a new slide, pause briefly to give them a chance to take it in."
Ben grinned. "Pausing. That I like. A chance not to talk."
"Also, you'll want to make eye contact with the audience."
Ben looked shocked. "Ohnooo, do I have to?"
"Indeed, you do. Let me put it this way. I once attended a presentation in which the speaker kept staring at the floor. It was as if he thought that if he couldn't see us, we wouldn't be able to see him. Do not look at the floor, OK?" Natalie grinned.
She continued. "Another thing. I want you to look like you're having a good time when you're presenting. If you look like you're enjoying yourself, you will convey confidence and your listeners will enjoy listening to you."
Ben looked dubious. "You make it sound so easy."
"Not at all. Delivering a polished presentation takes work. But you have some important information to share and your audience will appreciate it. Keep in mind that most people are so fearful of giving a presentation that they'll be thrilled it's you up there and not them. They'll admire you for doing what they're terrified of doing."
"So I can't call in an emergency root canal?"
"Ben, I remember back when I was as anxious about presenting as you are now. I can now speak to audiences of any size and have fun doing it. I know, positively, that you can learn to do the same. And I'll be delighted to say I told you so. Now, stand up and give it another try."
Have you heard a presenter who can serve as a role model for you? What aspects of his or her presentation did you find most compelling?
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