How to conquer your fear of giving a presentation

Abstract

Giving presentations to project sponsors, executives, and stakeholders is a key skill for successful project managers. The ability to speak with confidence and conviction adds to the credibility of the presenter and the message. Yet public speaking is one of the biggest fears for many. This paper will provide you with the tips, tools, and techniques used by professional speakers to help you manage your fear and speak with clarity and purpose. This paper is divided into three topic areas. The first topic discusses why the fear of public speaking is common and normal; the second topic provides information on how to prepare, practice, and manage your presentation performance; and the last topic gives you tools and technique to deal with difficult speaking situations.

Introduction

Why Presentation Skills for Project Leaders?

Project Communications Management is one of the nine Knowledge Areas in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guides—Fourth Edition (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2008). As a project manager, we are communicating constantly throughout the projects we manage. We communicate with project teams, project sponsors, and project stakeholders. We communicate with the written work and the spoken word. And often, the communication takes place as a formal presentation to a group of executives or key stakeholders. Presentations are where project proposals, concepts, and ideas are sold or rejected. Additionally, presentations are used to negotiate for competing project resources. Though it may not be fair, a project manager with excellent speaking skills has an advantage over those with weaker presentation skills. The ability to present eloquently is a vital skill for project manager.

Though project managers often have formal training in project management techniques, they have rarely been taught the skills to speak in public. This often contributes to project managers biggest fear: public speaking.

Why Do We Fear Speaking in Front of an Audience?

One study on phobias listed humankind's seven worst fears as:

  1. Public speaking,
  2. Heights,
  3. Insects and bugs,
  4. Financial problems,
  5. Deep water,
  6. Sickness, and
  7. Death.

Could it be that some people would prefer to die rather than give a presentation? The good news is that there is only one documented case of speaker dying from giving a presentation. President William Harrison delivered his two-hour inauguration speech on a cold, rainy day. Unfortunately, he removed his coat, caught a cold, and ultimately died of pneumonia one month later. He has the dubious distinction of having the shortest term as a U.S. president after delivering the longest inauguration speech in history. Brevity may be an important lesson to surviving your next speech.

Although your chances of dying during a presentation are very remote, the physical and psychological responses to public speaking are real. Common physical responses include increased pulse rate, elevated blood pressure, sweating, shaking, dry mouth, nausea, and a cracking voice. Psychological responses include anxiety, lack of concentration, talking too fast, and negative thoughts (“I can't do this,” “They won't like me,” “They won't like my presentation”).

The fear of public speaking is very common and normal. Even professional speakers occasionally become nervous before a major presentation. However, they have a variety of tools and techniques they use to channel this negative energy into a positive performance. It's all about preparation, practice, and performance.

The Three “P's” to Manage Your Fear

The three most important weapons to conquer your fear are the three “P's: Preparation, Practice and Performance.” Let's take a look at each of these areas and the various techniques you can use.

Preparation

Preparation starts once you have been asked to give a presentation. It involves answering these important questions:

  • Why this presentation?
  • Why this audience?
  • Why me as the presenter?
  • What is the format of the presentation?
  • What is the speaking environment?

Understanding why you are presenting on a particular topic adds clarity to your purpose. It is not enough to know that you have been asked to speak on a particular subject, but what is the specific outcome that is to result from the speech? Is the presentation to be informative? Are you there to persuade the audience? Ask yourself this question: What specific result should occur from this presentation? The development of your speech should focus on what you need to do to achieve that result.

Second, it is important to understand the audience members. What is their background and understanding of this topic? Do they need education on the topic either before or at the beginning of your presentation? What is their attitude toward this subject? Positive, passive, or hostile? How many will be attending? Again, your understanding of the answers will be influential in the development of your speech.

Next, ask the question of why you were asked to give this presentation? Are you the most knowledgeable individual? Are you seen as a person of influence in your organization? Maybe your presentation skills are of a high quality, or you have been asked to fill in for another presenter.

What will be the format of the presentation? How much time will you have to present? Will this be a formal presentation or an informal discussion? Will the presentation be a lecture or interactive? Will there be a question and answer period? If so, how much time?

Last, what will be the speaking environment? This is the physical arrangements of the presentation room. What size is the room? What size is the audience? What audio/visual equipment will you need (computer, projector, screen, Internet access, flipchart, handouts, room lighting, etc.)? What is the layout of the room (auditorium, classroom style, board)? Will there be a lectern or microphone?

Although the actual construction and development of your presentation is beyond the scope of this paper, knowing the answers to these important questions will help you prepare your presentation.

Practice

Once your presentation has been developed, you are now ready to begin practicing your speech. The ideal situation is to practice in the room that you will be giving the presentation using the equipment available for your presentation. If you do not have access to the facility, try to create the environment as much as possible. Practice your speech standing and concentrate on the presentation. Do not memorize the presentation but do use notes or an outline. You may want to audio or videotape your presentation for your review. Inviting people to be a practice audience can help you become comfortable speaking in front of people, and they will provide valuable feedback during your practice session. Be sure to time your presentation. Many professional speakers use a travel clock on the lectern or a nearby table during their presentation.

Performance

You have prepared and practiced your presentation and now it is showtime. Much of your performance is influenced by what you do prior to opening your mouth. The day before your presentation, review your material but do not make any major changes. Have a light dinner, do not drink alcohol, and go to bed early. On the day of your presentation, do not eat any fried, fatty, or greasy food. Avoid milk products and fruit juices since they can coat your throat. Do not drink cold water when presenting since this constricts your vocal cords. Have warm water available when speaking.

Dress professionally for your presentation. It will help your confidence and it adds credibility and authority to your presentation. Arrive early, and if possible, inspect the room at least one hour prior to your presentation to ensure everything is setup correctly and working properly. To make sure that you don't forget anything, use a checklist.

Now it's time to relax your body and your mind. Practice slow, deep breathing with your eyes closed. Inhale, hold it, and exhale slowly. Use muscle relaxation techniques starting with your head. Drop your head to your chest. Move your head around your neck both clockwise and counterclockwise. Contract and release the following muscles: jaw, face, shoulders, and hands. Raise and drop your arms; shake your arms and your legs.

If your mind starts to wander to negative thoughts, remember this important point: your audience did not come to see you fail. They want you to succeed and they are on your side. They may not agree with your topic but they did come to hear what you have to say, and what you have to say is important. Convert your negative thoughts into positive affirmations:

Negative Talk... Positive Talk...
  • I can't do this.
  • I'm so nervous.
  • I'm scared to death.
  • I just know that I'm going to forget my speech.
  • I don't have the experience or the knowledge.
  • The audience will pick my presentation apart.
  • I CAN do this!
  • I'm excited about his presentation!
  • I'm confident of my skills!
  • I'm prepared and calm.
  • I'm knowledgeable and I deserve to succeed!
  • The audience wants me to succeed!

Just prior to your presentation, review this final affirmation in your mind:

  • I'm glad I'm here.
  • I'm glad you're here.
  • I care about you.
  • I know what I know.
  • It's showtime!

Giving Your Presentation

Are your still nervous? That's OK and it's normal! Even professional speakers get nervous every so often. However, they have an arsenal of techniques at their disposal to appear confident. As they say in the speaking business, “fake it until you make it!”

Starting Your Presentation

Your goal in the first few moments of your presentation is to command the attention of your audience. Here are some techniques you can use:

  • Walk confidently to the center of the room;
  • Make eye contact with your audience;
  • Smile;
  • Start your presentation with....
    • a challenging question or statement,
    • a relevant quote,
    • a short story or anecdote,
    • use a prop, and
    • use humor;
  • Memorize your opening; and
  • Do not start with.
    • “Good morning/afternoon/evening,”
    • an apology,
    • a joke,
    • long, slow, boring statements, and
    • acknowledging that you are nervous.

During Your Presentation

While you are giving your presentation, there will be individuals in the audience who are smiling and nodding. These people have identified themselves as your supporters. Make eye contact with these people often as they will help build your confidence. If you are using humor, deliver your humor or punch line to one of these individuals. They will laugh the easiest and first. Often the rest of the audience will follow in their laughter. Using humor is the best medicine for public-speaking fear, but do not tell jokes. Humorous stories and anecdotes work best, especially personal ones. A cartoon displayed on a projection screen is effective and diverts the attention directly from you for a few moments. If the audience does not laugh at your humor, don't acknowledge it. Continue with your program as if it was not meant to be funny.

It is important not to let the audience know that you are nervous. Here are techniques used by the professionals:

  • Prior to your speech, remove any jewelry that you may play with during your presentation.
  • Remove coins and other items in your pockets.
  • If you hands are shaking, anything that you hold magnifies the shaking.
    • Do not hold your notes in your hands (use a lectern),
    • Do not use a laser pointer (keep your slides simple), and
    • Do not hold a microphone (use a lavaliere microphone).

Audience participation is a great way to divert the audience away from you and gives you a moment to collect your thoughts and prepare for the next section of your presentation. A handout is a great audience participation tool if you have blanks for the audience to fill in. Use a handout with lots of blanks for the audience to fill in key information. Don't print all your facts and information in your handout. Other audience participation techniques include:

  • ice breakers,
  • one-on-one discussions,
  • small group discussions, and
  • brainstorming session.

As you progress during your presentation and you apply these techniques, your confidence will grow. You will relax and may even begin to enjoy giving the presentation and have fun!

Difficult Situations That Can Shake Your Confidence

When Things Go Wrong

If you have been asked to give a presentation and you are a perfectionist, my best advice to you is to “get over it.” The perfect presentation does not exist. That does not mean you should not strive for the best presentation possible, just don't expect it. Something will happen and professional speakers know it and plan for it. Some even hope it happens! They want to try out some fun recovery techniques.

If you are using any technology during your presentation, you must prepare for the worst-case scenario. Computer and projector failures are the most common. Do you have a backup laptop and projector available? Having an audience participation activity in your pocket is a great way to keep the audience involved while you are swapping out equipment. Could you give your presentation without a computer if required? Always design your handouts so that they can be used in case your technology fails to perform.

Another technique used by professional speakers is to have a humorous comment ready for specific problems:

  • The room is too hot: “I tried to lower the thermostat, but it's already melted.
  • The room is too cold: “For handouts today we are passing out thermal blankets.
  • Spelling error in a visual: “Mark Twain said that there is a least five ways to spell any word.”
  • You drop something: “This information is just too hot to handle.”
  • The lights go out: “It appears that I need to shed more light on this subject.
  • A cell phone rings: “It's probably just somebody reminding you to turn off your cell phone.”
  • The highlighter runs out of ink: “The magic has gone out of my marker.”
  • The technology is not working: “They told me this would work at Radio Shack. “
  • The microphone makes a rude noise: “That's nothing. You should hear me sing!”
  • Someone arrives after your presentation has begun: “Please come in. I love it when someone walks into one of my presentations. It's so much better than when they walk out.”

Handling Audience Distractions

You may be faced with a situation where the audience may be distracted. Common distractions include audience members talking among themselves, a cell phone ringing, and noise from outside construction. Most speakers would find this disarming but professionals have developed techniques to manage these situations. Your goal is to get the audience to focus back to you and your presentation. An important rule to follow is to move your body toward the distraction you can control and move your body away from the distraction that you can't control.

Conversations and Cell Phones

Side conversations among audience members and ringing cell phones are common situations that you can manage as a presenter. Physically move your body toward the individual who is the offender. If necessary, stand right if front or next to the person and continue your presentation. Often your close presence alone will quiet the person. If the person(s) continue to engage in a conversation, continue your presentation and touch the person lightly on the arm or shoulder. To get their attention, when you are making an important point in you presentation, touch the individual and make eye contact.

Another technique is to move near the person and simply stop your presentation. The silence alone should stop the conversation. Or you could ask the person(s) if they would be more comfortable taking the conversation outside the room. You could also simply ask the audience if the situation is acceptable to them. Finally, you could give the audience a short break and then discuss the situation with the individuals involved.

The type of presentation, audience members, and situation will dictate which of these techniques you may employ.

Outside Distractions

For those situations you can't control, such as construction noise, the best you can do is to acknowledge the situation and move away from the distraction. For example, if there is construction noise coming from the next room on the right side of your room, simply position yourself on the left side of your room. Hopefully, the audience will be able to hear you better and be less distracted.

Questions and Answers

Conducting a question and answer session can be the most challenging part of your presentation. The speaker does not have control over what questions may be asked and is handing over some control of the presentation to the questioner. However, through proper preparation, you can manage the Q and A session with confidence.

First, when developing your presentation, it is important to ask yourself what questions might be raised, then prepare and practice your response as you would your presentation. During your presentation when questions are asked, use active listening skills: walk toward the questioner and square up, lean forward, and face the person. Acknowledge the speaker, thank them, and repeat the question for the group. Stay calm, in control, and do not be defensive. If this is a question you anticipated, you should have no problem with a response. If you did not expect the question, you have four options:

  • Answer the question the best you can,
  • Admit you don't know,
  • Offer to find out, and
  • Field the question to the audience (allow others to answer).

Be sure to satisfy the questioner but consider the entire audience. If you cannot do both, suggest to the individual that the two of you continue the discussion after the presentation. If you want to have a very polished question and answer session, be prepared with a closing statement, just like you would with your presentation.

Conclusion

Some individuals are more comfortable giving presentations than others. Fear is normal but it can be managed if you prepare, practice, and manage your performance. Remember, your audience wants you to succeed. You don't have to be a great speaker on your first speech. Make it a goal to improve each time you speak: 1% better, 100% of the time!

If you would like to further your education in public speaking, I would recommend joining a Toastmasters club. Toastmasters International is committed to developing the communication and leadership skills of its members. You can find a Toastmasters club near you through their website www.toastmasters.org.

References

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Glen Knight
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida

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