if you've been to just one conference, function or event in the last 12 months then you've probably already seen it happen: The speaker who manages to destroy a perfectly good presentation.
I like to think it's the kind of thing you probably wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, seeing someone squirming at the front of the room as they try to deliver a message or sell their product.
It can be as embarrassing, difficult and disconcerting for the audience as it is for the presenter and, in some way, it would be good if you could help them through it. But, sadly, that can't be the case as they steadily go down in flames.
A few simple changes to the approach of making a presentation can change the result completely and ensure you are not amongst the crash and burn fraternity.
You want me to speak ... Hell No!
Some people would rather feed their right arm to a crocodile – any crocodile, one of the late Steve Irwin's mates if necessary, rather than stand up in front of a group of people and speak. And it doesn't have to be a room full of powerful businesspeople that can make you want to run, screaming, from your predicament. It might be in front of a bunch of old school friends, your footy team end-of-season night, or a special family gathering like a birthday or wedding.
My sister-in-law, who is an eloquent, intelligent woman and a former teacher, recently had to have a chat at the birthday of a long-time friend in front of a bunch of other lifelong friends. She says she’s never felt so violently ill in all her life as in the few hours before making the speech, and was sure she was going to be violently ill in the minutes beforehand. She remembered most of the things I’d suggested for making it easy on her and delivered a very good speech. Her friends thought it was terrific and still talk about it. She remains in a state of delight!!
The fear for people is real and not to be discredited, but there are ways to overcome the nerves, maintain the focus and deliver, at worst, a passable product.
My knees were shaking...
So, what are those fears? Usually “making a goose of yourself” is up there with the best of them, being “watched by everyone”, “under the microscope” or “under the spotlight”, having people “question what you’re saying” or “question what you look like” are all credible explanations as to why you might hate to have to be up on stage.
The adrenal gland does some wonderful things to help us during times of distress. For instance, if you’re being chased by an animal that wants you for lunch you can run faster than normal, you can lift heavier things to get them out of your way, and your senses are heightened. Likewise, for athletes, adrenalin pumping into their system just before the start of a race can give them that edge when the starter’s gun goes off.
After a short while the adrenalin is dissipated in your system and the effect wears off. Yep, you’ve survived the advances of another raging bear or you have the winner’s gold medal happily bouncing on your chest during the victory lap.
But those very same positive affects from those “nerves” can work similarly against you, particularly when you are locked into a situation of standing in front of a group of people you are about to speak to.
Instead of delight, despair can be the result with a racing heartbeat, dry mouth, clammy hands and perspiring from places you’ve never perspired from before. You can end up with quick, radical, involuntary movements, a loss of focus from your brain and light-headedness.
Have you heard people say “my nerves got to me”? They’re dead right!
Breathe to relieve...
Breathing comes pretty-much naturally for us. It’s not even something you have to think about unless you’ve just sprinted for the last train and end up gasping for air as other passengers look at you as if you’re some kind of idiot.
But it’s about the first thing we forget to do when we stand up in front of an audience. Making sure you breathe, steadily, and at the right time (this is what punctuation is for) does a number of wonderful things. It slows the process down, oxygenates your brain and gets your rib cage moving, which leads to a relaxation of muscles that either work comfortably for you or contribute to the speaking anxiety. Steady breathing also counters hyperventilating, the opposite of not breathing, both of which will see you fall down in a funny faint.
Ideally this breathing process starts well before you get anywhere near the actual speaking. Also, countering the quick and radical movements needs to be done ahead of time as well. Former champion golfer, Gary Player says after his shower in the morning, before he played a competitive round of golf, he would dry himself moving the towel slowly and steadily instead of his usual rigorous drying method. Why? Because it meant he was keeping his system calm and slow so that, when he stood on the first tee, his first swing was steady and rhythmic instead of ballistic and sending the ball into the trees.
Speaking is the same. It’s easier to speed up, if you need to, during the speech than it is to slow down near the start. If you have to get up from a chair or move to a central point to speak, move slowly. In fact, move and speak slower than you think you are in the early stages.
Happy faces… Happy places...
We humans are generally comfort zone animals, especially when we’re under duress. When we’re short on time we’ll generally head to a car park in a shopping centre where we’ve been a number of times before because we’re comfortable with the area. When you’re speaking in front of a group of people you can do the same thing by finding some comfortable faces. Pick out a face on your left, one on the centre left, one on the centre right and one on your right hand side. In the early stages just direct your speech to those people. As you get a little more comfortable in your delivery you can include other faces until the whole space is a happy place.
One of the most regular questions I get asked is “what do I do with my hands?” Funny thing is it’s not something we usually think about, but when we get in front of people we become conscious of these things and wonder how to counter it. If you’re flapping your arms around more than normal it’s probably your own way of burning off the nervousness. Some people have to talk with their hands so the easiest thing is to remember to keep your elbows in and just use your hands. If you start making a heap of wild gestures people might think you’re having some sort of seizure – the old “not waving, drowning” adage.
No worries… I present all the time...
Happily surviving the “nervous starter” phase, or getting through it only marginally scathed, and making speeches and presentations on a regular basis can be very uplifting. It’s at this time we revisit what and how we’re doing it. Golf has some great parallels with public speaking. For example, the way you set yourself in front of the ball, before you hit it, can alter marginally every time you do it. After a while, without even recognising it, you can develop some bad habits that impact on the result of the golf swing. Yet you feel comfortable. The same goes for speaking! Repetitive sayings, movements, inferences and tones can all negatively impact on your presentation, without you actually realising you’re doing it.
Aw... Shucks… Thanks...
Escaping the scene, even to the back of the room, I believe is greatly unfortunate. I’m not suggesting you should hang around sucking every last vestige of applause from the audience, but accepting applause and congratulations for delivering a speech is part of the finalisation of the process – a rounding off, so to speak.
A well-delivered presentation, and the kudos from it, is extremely empowering, self-fulfilling and can put you on the leadership radar. Just ask my sister-in-law!
Peter Buckley is a Speaker and Coach on Presentation Performance Techniques, and a Mentor in Management and Staff
Development. Go to www.peterbuckley.com.au