Nine ways to calm your nerves by connecting with your audience (and imagining your audience naked is not one of them!)
Presenting to an audience can feel unnatural. Most people don't like being in the spotlight. It is tempting to become less noticeable by hiding behind a PowerPoint presentation. But that is an unhelpful strategy. We need to do the opposite because connecting with the audience is the key to feeling more comfortable.
I had a conversation recently with a sales manager, Mike. He told me that when he was 18, he lived in Spain for his final year of schooling. He was asked to talk about life in New Zealand at a school assembly. His hand shook uncontrollably as he started to speak. He was holding notes which made this obvious! Then he put up a slide of a cow. I am not sure what he said, but everyone started laughing. And suddenly he felt relaxed!
Most public speaking coaches agree that the old advice to imagine your audience naked is lousy advice! The intent is to make the audience seem less threatening. But instead of treating the audience as hostile or dangerous, we need to connect.
Here are nine things you can try instead.
1. Pause and make eye contact
Pausing and eye contact can be real game-changers. Pause when you would expect a response (verbal or non-verbal) if you were in a two-way conversation. Establish eye contact with someone as you do this. Often they will acknowledge you with a nod or a smile. It is very reassuring when that happens! If they look grumpy or bored, move on to the next person.
Make eye contact throughout your presentation, not just when you are pausing. Hold eye contact with each person for a few seconds until the end of a sentence, phrase or idea. With a bit of practice, this will start to feel natural.
2. Get out from behind the PowerPoint
A lot of nervous speakers look down at their notes or turn their back on the audience while looking at their slides. For years I hid behind a PowerPoint presentation because I liked the audience looking at the slides instead of me!
Afterwards, I would feel relieved that I got through another presentation. But, it was a coping strategy, and it did not make me an engaging presenter.
Use slides to support your presentation but remember you are the presentation – not your slides!
3. Involve your audience
There are many ways to involve your audience from very passive to very active and everything in between. Here are some ideas:
4. Get conversational
Although a presentation is a performance, the trick is to make it sound as natural as possible. Don't read or memorise your presentation. You need to know the structure and content thoroughly, but every time you practice or give your speech, it should sound a little different.
5. Tell stories
Stories are a powerful tool for audience connection. A good story hooks the audience and has emotional appeal.
6. Get personal
While stories are great, personal stories are even better. An audience loves hearing about your own experience, especially if its humorous or about something that has gone wrong!
7. Be vulnerable
Watch Brené Brown's famous TED talk, "The Power of Vulnerability." She talks about how she discovered that genuine human connection is not possible without vulnerability. In a follow-up talk, "Listening to Shame" she makes a striking observation.
"You know what the big secret about TED is? .. This is like the failure conference. ..You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on the stage, so far that I've seen, has not failed. I've failed miserably many times."
I have always known that audiences love stories of overcoming adversity, but I had not realised that so many TED talks are about failure!
A word of caution. It is possible to overshare! Sharing should make you feel more uncomfortable than your audience.
8. Use humour
Humour is one of the quickest ways of connecting with an audience, as Mike discovered.
You can add humour safely by poking light-hearted fun at yourself. Laughing is relaxing – but equally listening to others laugh at what you say will give you a feeling of wellbeing that will reduce those nerves considerably!
9. Go off-script
Winging your presentation is a bad idea, but occasionally going off-script will make you look spontaneous. The audience loves it. I once gave a speech at a friend's wedding that I had practised to death. Partway through, I made an unplanned reference to the bride's shoes. Afterwards, the groom's father said to me, "if that was an impromptu speech, it was the best I have ever heard." I was both appalled and flattered! Appalled that he thought I would have the gall to give an impromptu speech at a wedding. And flattered that he thought it sounded spontaneous!
Apply these nine tips consistently and you will become a more confident and engaging speaker. I love this advice from Chris Anderson, the Head of TED. In his book, "TED Talks - the Official TED Guide to Public Speaking," he says,
"You are human. Your listeners are humans. Think of them as friends and just reach out."
Article by Catherine Syme
Updated and revised September 2020.
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I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.