Stefani Wilkens
Stefani Wilkens | Graphic Designer


Prepare. Practice. Perform.


Have you ever been forced to sit through a painfully bad presentation? Maybe it was a coworker who got too nervous, a classmate who didn't know the material or a complete stranger who simply didn't take enough time to prepare. Regardless of which scenario you found yourself observing, it's likely that you cringed a bit inside. 

Now let me flip things around. Have YOU ever been the awkward presenter? Have you ever lost track of what you were saying, been unable to close the conversation, or felt like you walked away without making your most important points? I bet you have because everyone goes through this at one time or another. Presenting is scary. There's no way around it.

The fact is, everyone – every. single. person. – has to make presentations. It could be pitching a concept to your boss, bouncing an idea off a friend or addressing a stadium full of people you've never met before. Nobody gets away with never making a presentation. We all have to do it, and you most likely have to do it regularly. So why is it that we get choked up, confused and nervous in certain situations and not others? 

It's all in your head.

Each of these situations is exactly the same. 

Yes, there may be differences in scale, importance, and equipment. But the fact of the matter is that you're having to sell your ideas to someone else. In that way, none of these scenarios is any different from any other.

Now, that's not to say that these situations aren't scary – because they are. Thankfully, that fear does not have to control you. With a small amount of forethought you can get to a point where nobody can sense your anxiety – even if you're still shaking in your boots.

Let's just dive right in, shall we? 

The first step runs along the lines of fake it 'til you make it. You don't have to feel confident to project confidence. Sub in any adjective to that sentence and it still applies. The fact is that most people will forget most of what you say – but they will remember how you say it. If you're biting your fingernails, staring at the floor or slumping into yourself, whyour audience will recognize your discomfort, which will, in turn, make them feel uncomfortable. The key is in body language.

Choose someone whose presentation style you admire and take a few minutes to study their body language. Do they gesture with their arms? Walk back and forth? Use hand movements to emphasize their points? (A great place to analyze this is TED Talks.) Figure out what works for them and practice it in your daily life – i.e. when you're not presenting. (Practicing in the mirror is also okay.) Eventually, these movements will find their way into your muscle memory and present themselves at the proper moment.  

The second major step in successful public speaking is taking time to prepare. AKA – figuring out what the hell you're going to say. 

Now, let me tell you what NOT to do – do not write out a speech that you'll read or recite word for word. Even if you're presenting over the phone! DO NOT DO IT! Why? Because the spoken word is vastly different from the written word. It's easy to tell when someone is reading what they're saying – ever lost track of a lecturer when he or she is reading directly off the slide? (You know you have.) Reading or reciting a speech word for word is the single least effective way of connecting with your audience.

Then how do I prepare? My answer is bullet points. 3 to 5 is all you're allowed. Nobody will pay attention past that point. 

Figure out the three most important points you want to make. Memorize those, and then concentrate on learning as much as possible about the supporting material. Your goal should be able to answer any question that's possibly related to your three points. Once you've done that, you'll know that you have enough subject matter knowledge to be confident in what you're saying. 

Side Note: It can also sometimes help to write a rough outline of what you're going to say, especially for larger presentations. Try to keep this as high level as possible though, the details don't matter to your audience. (You should know them, of course, but that's more for follow up conversations – not presentations.) 

Okay, now you know what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. The next step is the most important. It's called practice.

Practice can be accomplished as quickly as running through an imaginary conversation in your head before walking over to your coworker's desk, or as cliché as talking to yourself in the bathroom mirror. You can give your presentation into your cell phone as you walk down the street – people will just think you're pitching to a client on the other line – or you can get a few trusted friends/coworkers/mentors together and create a mock presentation.

The point is, YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE. Remember the muscle memory I mentioned earlier? The same principle applies to the words coming out of your mouth. It's why people tend to use the same expressions over and over again. The more you're used to saying certain words, phrases, sentences, the more comfortable you'll be when speaking them to an audience. 

But what happens when you've done all this prep work and things still go awry? 

Yes, it happens. This is not a foolproof method (though it certainly does work.) There will be times when your mind goes blank on stage, when you misspeak, and when you just desperately need some water. (Raise your hand if you remember Marco Rubio's State of the Union rebuttal?) These things happen – and there are three ways to deal with it. 

Option 1: Fake It. If your mistake is minor, such as stuttering over a word, mispronouncing something, or tripping as you walk across the stage – PRETEND IT DIDN'T HAPPEN. This is a trick I learned in my 18 years at a ballet dancer. The fact is that most people won't notice your mistake because they won't know what was supposed to come next. If you miss a step, just move on and people will forget about it. If you don't make a big deal of your mistake, others won't either.

Option 2: Fix It. If you've made a larger error, like skipping over one of your important points. take the time to fix it. Phrases such as, "Let me go back for a minute", "I forgot to mention," and, "Actually, a better perspective/question is...." All allow you to backtrack gracefully. These types of phrases show a spontaneity and authenticity that other human beings will recognize, appreciate and accept with warmth. So, if you make an error, take ownership of it and repair it in the moment.  

Option 3: Feature it. We are all human. So if you need a sip of water, don't try to hide it. Take it and move forward. If you break into a coughing fit, admit that you're embarrassed. If you're stuttering, tell your audience that you're nervous. Highlighting these types of situations allows people to see your humanity. It gives them the opportunity to empathize with you and react with kindness and generosity instead of discomfort.

There you have it – Public Speaking 101. Are there any tips here that you intend to put to use? Anything you think I left out? Leave a comment for me below and share your wisdom with other readers! (Also, don't forget to sign up for email updates so you never miss another post!)

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