What’s your greatest fear? According to numerous polls, it’s fairly likely that your answer involves public speaking. In fact, some people are so scared of speaking in front of an audience that it’s even ranked higher than death in some studies.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be afraid of. At a recent lecture at MIT, communication expert Jean-luc Doumont explained that the anxiety produced by public speaking is perfectly rational. When you’re speaking in front of a group, stakes are usually high. You’re being evaluated and judged, and the worst part is it’s all in real time. Once you say something, it’s out there. No take-backs.
But, it’s precisely because presenting is so high-stakes that we can’t just succumb to our knee-jerk fight-or-flight instincts. Luckily for us, Doumont offered some insight into that as well.
1. Familiarize Yourself With the Environment
Doumont admits to being a bit of a handful for people who organize his talks. He needs a lot of information: Who will be in the audience, and how big will it be? Is this talk part of a larger program, or is it a stand-alone presentation? And, without exception, can he get into the event room an hour prior to set up?
But it’s all for the sake of the presentation. Turns out, getting a sense of what environment you’ll be stepping into can do a lot to relieve nerves. Take it from a guy who presents on presenting (imagine the scrutiny!): Early access to the room plus some context on the audience gives you a chance to mentally prepare. More importantly, you can finally get rid of those everything-is-going-to-go-wrong scenarios by troubleshooting any and all technology needs you have for your talk.
2. Know Your Content
This one is a bit obvious, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. If you know your content inside out, you’ll be more confident. Period. Can you give the talk without slides? If so, you’re in good shape and have one less thing to worry about. If not, you have some practicing to do.
Doumont explains that it’s not about memorizing your speech—in fact, that’s definitely not the best strategy for a strong presentation. It’s more about memorizing your structure, your main points. A good test for this is flipping through your slide deck and testing yourself. Can you imagine what the next slide is? Try to make your point for the next slide without looking at it. Get this down, and you’ll nail your content.
3. Give the Audience What it Wants
Audience engagement is a big part of a successful presentation, but it’s also a source of great fear. It’s incredibly hard not to become discouraged when your audience is bored, distracted, or worse, asleep. You might think it’s all about charisma, but not necessarily. Charisma doesn’t hurt, but it’s actually much simpler.
According to Doumont, changing the focus of your presentation from the “what” to the “so what” will instantly change the way your audience engages with your presentation. All of sudden, your topic is relevant to them, and there’s a call to action to either agree or disagree with. All that’s left is to convince them. There’s still plenty to stress about, but having an inattentive audience won’t be on that list.
4. Have a Strategy for Questions
Questions are one of the most nerve-racking parts of presentations. Your expertise will be challenged. That one guy in the back who managed to maintain an incredulous look on his face for the entire hour and a half talk is bound to say something. And, inevitably, you’ll be asked something so specific that you just won’t know how to answer.
Doumont’s strategy is beautifully simple: Be helpful. If you know the answer, offer it. If you don’t, give a brief reason why and try to be helpful. This could mean sending additional information after the talk, directing him or her to another resource, or even asking the crowd if anyone knows the answer. And, as a side note, for vicious questions meant to attack you, the strategy is the same with an additional caveat: Never yell back—you’ll keep the audience’s sympathy.
5. See Yourself Succeeding
Before you scoff and skip to the end, just know that Doumont, the presenter on presenting, does this before every lecture. Think positive, and don’t give yourself an excuse to fail. It’s easy to get lost in self-doubt, and your constant refrains of imagined failure will definitely impact your presentation. Don’t let it.
As Doumont explains, your brain will try to prove you right, so it really behooves you to not imagine yourself failing and to spend some time visualizing your flawless presentation in your mind. You know it’s possible to present well, especially with your careful preparation. Now tell yourself so.
Still nervous? Good. It means you care about your presentation. A lecture by someone who couldn’t care less is pretty much guaranteed to bore. But a presenter who’s full of passion and enthusiasm is hard to resist. Do be prepared, but once it’s show time, don’t get skittish because you’re still nervous. Take it as a good sign, then channel it into energy and excitement for your topic. You’ve got this.
Photo of courtesy of William Marlow.
Lily Zhang serves as a Manager of Graduate Student Professional Development at the MIT Media Lab where she works with a range of students from AI experts to interaction designers. When she’s not indulging in a new book or video game, she’s thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author