Imagine this: Ten senior professionals swivelling in luxurious leather chairs around a long grand mahogany board room table. At one end of the table a huge screen drops down from the ceiling with a projector ready to hypnotise a room full of executives. Every fifteen minutes a new face enters the room sits nervously at the end of the table in front of the laptop and stares painfully at the screen.

Without pausing for breath each presenter reads a plethora of bullet points whilst simultaneously trying to explain excruciatingly complex charts and graphs alongside them. Speaking in a monotone voice with little or no energy, passion or belief, they make no eye contact with anyone else in the room. Meanwhile the rest of the room are using every ounce of their intelligence to listen to the presenter drone on and on whilst they try to read the slide at the same time.

Giving presentation

For the entire 10 minutes the speaker has remained completely expressionless in facial, vocal and body language.

Now it’s time for questions.

The only person asking questions is the most senior person in the room. All of the answers are directed straight to him, no one else in the room gets any eye contact or acknowledgement at all.

Does that sound like a scene from a business meeting in the late 1980’s?

Sadly it isn’t. It’s a scene you will see in some of the largest and most successful brands in the world today. Little has changed in meeting rooms around the world in the last thirty years.

Ironically, when you ask the same professionals what it takes to be a great presenter and deliver a high impact, memorable presentation they know exactly what to say. They know what to do yet they still don’t do it and when you ask them why they don’t do it very few have the answer. I believe there are several reasons why many of the most intelligent, creative, responsible and talented professionals in the world continue to present in the same way.

We are creatures of habit

According to research quoted in Science Daily, ‘About 40 percent of people’s daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations.’

Regardless of status, experience or intellect human beings are creatures of habit. We wake up at the same time each morning, wear the same clothes, eat the same food and take the same route to work, read the same books and often think the same things we always do.

When it comes to presenting at work the first thing many professionals do is what they always do. They reach for the laptop and use the same templates with the same old information and deliver it in the same way.

So many people are doing the same thing in the same way that business presentations have become boring and something most people dread.

We are taught to follow

From the moment we start school right through to going to college or university and then starting work we are taught to conform. Most of us want to ‘fit in’ and a vast number of us are terrified at the thought of being rejected by standing out too much. As explained in Simply Psychology, many of us ‘will look to others (who know more / better) for guidance (i.e. adopt the group norm).’

When we see our boss and our peers turn their backs to their audience to read slides and they have been doing it for years then surely that must be good enough for us.

Business presentation

We are wired to be lazy

Only last year the BBC referred to some interesting research from a Canadian Study which reported that ‘Researchers asked nine volunteers to wear leg braces that made walking at their usual pace more strenuous.

Within minutes, each volunteer worked out how to modify their usual walking pattern to use the least energy.’

Leg braces aside, we are always looking for the easy option. Crafting a creative and carefully designed presentation which is not only compelling but memorable takes considerable effort.

Why would we make that effort when it’s so easy to read your slides out?

These three factors alone may go some way to explaining why so many of feel so despondent about the idea of attending business presentations because in essence we have come to believe three things:

  • Most presentations are the same or very similar
  • Most presentations are far too long
  • Most presentations are really boring

That doesn’t however necessarily explain why so many people are terrified at the thought of making them. After all, if all you have to do is do what you always do, follow everyone else and read out a few slides what is so anxiety provoking?

There are three reasons why presenting and public speaking is a major source of fear, distress and anxiety for so many people.

Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.” George Bernard Shaw

It’s our brain

Despite hundreds of millions of years of evolution the oldest part of our brain known as the reptilian brain still has control over how we feel in challenging situations. It’s the part of our brain which is programmed for survival and whilst public speaking is of course non-life threatening it doesn’t feel that way to many speakers.

The moment we stand to speak our reptilian brain feels exposed, vulnerable and under threat and that’s why we begin to feel anxious. For many of us we don’t even need to speak as the very thought of standing in front of others is sufficient to challenge and rattle the reptilian brain.

We want to look good

The only reason any of us do anything is to look and feel good. The moment we stand to speak in public or present our ideas the pressure to look good is gargantuan. Many professionals believe that their entire reputation is at stake and they approach the podium in the unhealthy belief that they have to be perfect. With our ego’s screaming at us that whatever happens we have to come out of this looking great it’s no wonder the pressure is so anxiety provoking.

It’s the ‘head stuff’

Whilst everyone is telling us to breathe, stay calm and focus, our internal dialogue is often saying something completely different.

What if I freeze?

What if the ask me a question I can’t answer?’

What if they know more than me?’

Some people call it our ‘Monkey Mind’ which is that incessant negative voice in our mind always trying to put us down or hold us back.

Business speaker giving presentation
photo credit: Decoded_conf / Flickr

The solution

1. Engage your vagus nerve

According to Psychology Today it’s our vagus nerve which is a long cranial nerve connecting to our visceral organs that has the power to help us stay calm when we feel anxious. The best way to engage the vagus nerve to lower our heart rate, blood pressure and to help our heart and organs to function in a state of calm is to take deep breaths.

Practice breathing in through your nose to the count of 5 and slowly exhaling through your mouth through pursing your lips until each breath is fully released.

Repeat the cycle for a full minute or two all the while focusing purely on your breath as you slowly inhale and exhale.

2. Accept the truth

The truth is that is entirely normal to feel some level of anxiety when presenting and speaking in public. I believe it was Mark Twain who once said, “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”

In accepting the fact that the nerves you are feeling is completely natural and affects everyone to some degree means that you can stop fighting it and learn to manage it. We all have that sense of butterflies flying around in our stomach when we present, the challenge is to help them fly in formation. The more you deny and neglect them the more havoc they will cause.

3. Stop being selfish

In our efforts to look good, impress and show our audience how much we know and how hard we have worked our anxiety is heightened. As we strive for perfection and make our presentation all about us instead of our audience we lose confidence instead of gaining it.

Focus entirely on your audience by crafting a presentation mindfully which revolves completely on how what you have to say can help make a positive difference to their professional or personal lives.

4. Be an 8…

Imagine confidence on a scale of 1 to 10 with the number 10 representing you feeling so good that you feel unstoppable.

Hold in your mind that you are an 8 on a scale of confidence and stand, walk, think and talk like an 8 would feel. We all know what an 8 in confidence looks like and we have all had times in our lives when we have actually been that number even though we may not remember. It is within your gift to call on that feeling in any moment simply by holding the number, thought and belief in your mind.

5. Challenge the status-quo

Now that you feel calmer and more confident make a decision to be a leader instead of a follower. Dare to be different by:

  • Ditching the bullet points and using compelling images
  • Stretching and challenging your voice with vocal exercises
  • Getting feedback on the way you move while speaking; your facial expressions, hand gestures and how you use the space you have.
  • Telling short, relevant and powerful stories. Use anecdotes, metaphors, similes and descriptive language.
  • Making genuine eye contact.
  • Creating, drama, suspense and excitement.
  • Using humour.
  • Involving your audience by asking them questions, get them interacting, talking to each other and physically doing something.
  • Using props, videos or even music to ‘spice’ things up.
  • Giving them permission to challenge you and even leave if they feel they are in the wrong room.
  • Knowing your content and message inside out so that you don’t have to read slides out loud or even refer constantly to notes.
  • Making sure that your presentation is content rich, short, compelling and completely relevant to your audience.
Giving presentation in board room
photo credit: Jurvetson / Flickr

6. Be present

Have you ever noticed that some presenters are with you in the room physically but their mind seems to be somewhere else? The greatest gift that you can give your audience is to be completely present in the room with them. That means losing the ‘head stuff’ slowing down the noise in your mind, not making judgements and assumptions and simply being there with them.

Get into the habit of getting yourself into the meeting or presentation room as early as you can. Once you are organised and satisfied that any technology you may be using is working just spend time standing in the room in the quiet of your own mind and body.

7. Keep it simple

Don’t go out of your way to show off to your audience about how clever you are in making your presentation really complex. Take all of the complexity and hard work out of your presentation by making it as simple, plain and as easy for your audience to understand as possible.

If they have to work hard to understand either you or your slides your audience won’t thank you for it.

8. Finish early

Many professionals would agree that most business presentations are far too long. They are often ‘padded’ out, too repetitive and unnecessarily detailed. If you have 20 minutes to speak prepare, plan and practice speaking for 15 minutes. Your audience will be grateful that you finished earlier rather than ran over time.

9. Ask them what they want

If you don’t know your audience and are not entirely sure what they want or need from you then make a point of asking them. Even if you do know them and believe you know exactly what they need from you don’t make assumptions, ask them anyway.

10. Ask them how it went

You’ve spent hour’s days or weeks carefully crafting your presentation and now you’ve delivered it. Don’t just leave it there, follow up with your audience by asking them what they think and ask them how they feel. Ask them what they learned what they like and if you were doing it again what you would have them change.

Ask them how you can help them further now they know what they know.

Presenting and speaking in public really doesn’t have to be so daunting for the speaker or tedious for the audience. Having the mindfulness and courage to follow these suggestions will substantially increase your chances of not only enjoying the experience but helping your audience to do so too.