Presenting is such a big part of what we do—whether it's selling a client on a big idea, or explaining the idea to your internal team so it makes it into the meeting, period. While being comfortable speaking in front of people is helped by time and experience, it's also closely tied to our nerves, stress, and fear—so much so that even seasoned speakers can find themselves falling back into bad habits.
Habits like our favorite filler words—the ums, reallys, you knows, and likes. Or relying on intonation patterns, such as raising the ends of sentences like questions or a monotone speed-speak. And don't forget the physical tics, the repetitive motions like touching our hair, wringing our hands, or crossing our arms. Things that serve to release nervous energy and shield us from...whatever it is we think will happen if the presentation goes south.
The struggle is real. But here are five things that can help you become a better presenter. Apply them presentation by presentation, and it'll get easier over time. Promise.
1) Be aware of your bad habits. Nothing is more cringe-y than having to watch yourself present. But filming yourself is the best way to identify and become aware of things you do unconsciously. You can also do a dry-run in front of someone who'll be straight with their feedback—equally awkward, but just as helpful.
2) Slow down. Even more. Talking too fast comes from wanting to get it over with, and an unconscious belief that more efficiently we get through it, the less room there'll be for messing up. But letting ourselves talk the speed we want to talk leaves us vulnerable to bad habits that happen when we're not actively thinking. Slowing down not only helps your audience understand you, but will also give you more time to process what you're saying—and what you're doing while you say it.
3) Settle into the silence. We can't stand silence. It's why we use filler words—we'd rather have something, even the droning nothing of an "ummmmm," instead of silence. But silence can be used to give emphasis, heighten anticipation, or simply give listeners' brains time to process. The silence won't kill you—in reality, it can be a potent tool.
4) Use your hands. If you're prone to touching your face, hair or pockets while presenting—or in general, feel awkward not knowing where to put your hands—try putting them to work. Use them to help express what you're saying, whether it's gesturing to reference someone or something, or punctuating important points. Careful not to go overboard—too much hand movement can be distraction. (Ex. I windmill my hands when trying to find the right way to explain something, as if the motion will help me think of the words I'm looking for. The windmill was out in full force on Episode 2 of We Are Next Live.)
5) Put fear in its place. I recently heard fear described as an acronym—false events appearing real. We fear things we think might happen, not what's actually happening in the moment. When we feel fear while presenting, we're really afraid of what'll happen if we flub it, or if the client's reaction is negative—not the act of speaking itself. Same goes for an interview. We fear not getting the job, or being asked a question we can't answer—not the act of talking with someone about potentially being hired. I'm not saying don't feel fear. But understand that the thing you fear hasn't even happened. So don't let it affect what's happening now.
There are plenty of amazing speakers who still keep a list of things to work on. Being a compelling presenter is a career-long effort that constantly pushes us outside our comfort zones. But with time and practice, it can be one of your most impactful skills.
Fear's got nothing on you,