We’re all familiar with the terror that public speaking can induce. If you find giving talks nerve-wracking, dropping all your notes on the floor at the beginning of a presentation may sound like your worst nightmare come true. But when it happened to me, it was a moment of learning and inspiration. I still apply those lessons today as a professional public speaker. And hopefully they can help you reduce your nervousness, boost your confidence, and—most importantly—experience the joy of giving a talk.
It happened years ago, during a high school speech competition. I had written every word and punctuation mark of the presentation I wanted to deliver on a pile of index cards. But when the time came to give my talk, I was so anxious that I dropped all the cards on the floor. I froze. My heart rate hit the roof as I stared at the judge. For a zeptosecond, I considered diving to my hands and knees to pick up the cards, but I recognized that wouldn’t help me. I only had this one shot. I knew my thesis and main points in my head. I delivered my awkward, um-filled, perfectly imperfect speech from memory—and to my amazement, I took home honorable mention that day.
With that experience, my perspective on speaking was transformed. When I recognized that perfection isn’t what the audience is looking for, speaking became more fun and less scary.
Let’s get you on the path to enjoying giving presentations, too! Here are a few areas to focus on.
It is perfectly fine—and even expected—for talks to include mistakes and awkward pauses and ums and ahs and perhaps even yannis (the filler word used in Egyptian Arabic). Remember that you are a human delivering a presentation for other humans. Imperfection is a feature of our humanity and not a deficit or something to fear. If you make a mistake during a presentation, acknowledge it, apologize if appropriate, and move on.
It also helps to take a moment as you begin to speak to remember who you are and who the audience members are. One approach I use, even for Zoom presentations these days, is to start conversations with audience members before the formal presentation begins. I wave to people as they arrive on the screen and welcome them to the event by name, which is displayed when they join. I can’t do this with everyone, of course, but welcoming even just a few people reminds me I am speaking to humans—and it helps the audience see that I am human, too. Similarly, just asking “Where are you all from?” (which virtual attendees can answer by typing in the chat window) and then smiling toward the webcam lens to make eye contact helps me feel grounded and washes away jitters.
The audience wants to enjoy themselves and learn from you. What this translates to for you as the speaker is that they are rooting for you. I find that knowing the audience is in my corner and wants me to succeed helps me power through when I am anxious or misspeak.
One tactic I employ to remind myself of this is to take a moment to thank the audience at the beginning, end, and even in the middle of my presentation. I might say something like, “Hey, thanks again for being here! I especially appreciate our audience members who are watching from India, South Africa, and Chile!” It reminds me that they are there for me.
When you are given the platform to speak, it is because the organizer has confidence that you will deliver something of value to the audience. They want you to communicate your work and insight. And they know you have expertise in what you know, even if you don’t fully realize it yourself just yet.
But you are not expected to know everything. As a first-year college student, I was fearful of giving my year-end presentation about my astrophysics research because I expected the professors in the audience to pepper me with questions about advanced cosmological concepts of which I knew nothing. This was a rookie mistake. I now understand that the audience members didn’t expect me to know everything about the universe—they only expected me to deliver a presentation on what I had learned about the universe. Recognizing that the audience wants to hear me discuss what I know, and only that, has helped me relax as a speaker.
Too often, we assume that we have to know everything about everything when giving a talk. The next time you are presenting, focus your attention on your knowledge and expertise. And in the event that someone asks you a question outside your purview, do not let this rattle you. Simply say something like, “Thank you. This is outside of my area of knowledge, but I would be happy to speak with you at another time about this.” It is very powerful to hear yourself articulate this, to cement in your mind that it is OK to have limits to your expertise—just like everyone else. It doesn’t make you any less of a star.
Your aim for any presentation is to turn the audience from passive observers into passionate advocates. To accomplish this, you must connect with your audience—and storytelling is one of the most effective ways to do so. Stories create a bridge with audience members, who see themselves in the tales you weave. Stories add emotion and color and substance to what you have to say. Stories give the audience an anchor point to remember you. Stories encourage audience members to want to learn more and possibly engage you for something tangible, such as a job or a collaboration. People may not remember specific data points, but they will remember stories and how those stories made them feel. Including stories also helps reduce anxiety because it gives you the time and space during your presentation to be authentically you. You can tell stories of your experience uncovering information, how you decided to develop a certain protocol, how you adapted your dissertation to COVID-19—whatever motivates and excites you.
When delivering a presentation, you have incredible power. With every word you say, you can change the way the audience members think. The next time you are preparing to present, take a few moments before you go on Zoom or on stage and say to yourself: I belong here. This is my moment to make a difference. I will appreciate and honor this privilege. I will deliver a presentation that sparks excitement. This is my promise to the audience and, most importantly, to myself.
Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.