Presenting or speaking to an audience regularly tops the list in surveys of people’s top fears—more than heights, flying, or even dying. A common physical reaction is a release of adrenaline and cortisol into our systems, which has a similar effect as drinking several cups of coffee. When this happens, the “primitive brain” shuts down normal functions as the “fight or flight” impulse takes over.
That used to be me.
Today I give presentations all the time. I love to engage with a group of people and talk about topics that are meaningful for the audience. Some people tell me, “I wish I could give presentations, but I don’t have any natural talent for it.” Well, I have a funny story to tell about my early experiences presenting.
The first time I stood in front of a classroom, my presentation pretty much turned into a recitation. That’s right—I read from a book for six hours in a row. That night I went home exhausted and hoarse, and very aware that I needed to find a different approach. I bored myself to tears that day!
Over the next month or so I spent time reflecting on who the best teachers and trainers are and what I needed to do differently. I studied how I could emulate them and use clever strategies and tactics in my own presentations. I watched videos of expert presenters, read up on the topics, and practiced on my friends and family. And I had an epiphany: Learning comes from the participants, not from the presenter. I’m simply there to facilitate the process. In fact, the less I do and the more the participants do, the better the overall results.
So I went on to teach a workshop for a couple hundred people. I call this my “middle ground” era. I’m not sure that it was obvious to the audience how incredibly debilitating my internal stress was, but speaking in front of a large group was still a nearly paralyzing experience. I found comfort in rituals. Just before presentation time, I would lock myself in the restroom stall to close my eyes and collect my thoughts. What will my first 10 minutes look like? What will I say to connect with the audience? And then I began to do what some athletes do: I visualized success by going through the activity and imagining a positive experience. I could get myself to this calm place where I could, well, just do it.
As I put myself out there more often, I slowly improved my technique, and the stress diminished with each new presentation. Here are some techniques I’ve embraced over the years:
- The most important rule for effective presentations is to plan and practice. This is the only way I feel in control and more confident.
- It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to memorize a presentation word-for-word. Recall takes so much energy that you would have little left for relating to the audience. So I never even consider memorizing. Instead, I use notes unobtrusively and effectively. If I know the content, there is no reason to feel anxious or concerned.
- If I’m using PowerPoint as a presentation tool, I don’t rely on it for my notes. Because when you read the notes on the slide, you turn your back to your audience.
- I like to untether myself by using a clicker instead of standing next to a screen with a mouse the whole time.
- I ask questions to encourage participants to share their own perspectives. I find that this involves everyone and helps to draw people out—not just the “talkers.”
- Every 10 minutes or so I change course to keep things interesting. I do this by providing some startling information—something that makes sense in the context of the presentation. This helps to bring people back to the moment and the content.
- I don’t skimp on breaks. Research proves that short, frequent breaks increase retention. Breaks can be physical, like a stretch or quick walking activity, or they can be mental, such as a brainteaser, trivia, or other unrelated content. Even a five-minute break can provide enough of a brain shift to spur cognition.
- They say that kids are sponges, but what about adults? We may have stronger filters, but we eagerly soak up new information if it’s compelling and engaging. Formal learning needs to be seeded with informal learning opportunities, like exchanging stories, observing behaviors, and playing games.
- If I see things starting to wane, I pull out what I call an “energizer”—a physical opportunity to engage, laugh, or have an experience together to keep things interactive. I always have these energizers up my sleeve and ready to go when needed.
Aside from techniques, it’s important to cultivate your own style too. Here’s what I’ve discovered about my own style:
- I see facilitation as partly a performance. People are sitting there. I might as well entertain them! It helps the learning come more easily. So it might not surprise you to learn that my presentation style is animated, with lots of movement. Standing in one place gets both boring and predictable and the audience ends up doing other things instead of listening or responding.
- My style can be fluid or structured and dialed up or down, depending on the situation. I spend a lot of time thinking about what the audience needs when cultivating my approach. During retail presentations I tend to move at a fast pace, using humor and wit to engage the audience. But when I worked with a group of fish scientists, for example, my approach was more low-key, more deliberate, and more grounded by data.
If you’d like to learn more about my approach to giving presentations, check out the Presentation Skills session I teach as part of the ASTD Cascadia Fundamentals of Training program .
I’d love here from our blog readers about your own experiences with presentations. What do expect from your facilitator in a classroom experience? If you give presentations yourself, what rituals to do you go through to get ready? Feel free to send us your comments in the box below!