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How To Give a Presentation Without Freaking Out

Attendees often ask me after I’ve delivered a speech or facilitated a training, how I got so comfortable speaking in front of groups.

This is usually followed by: “Do you have any tips that could help make me a better speaker?” After which I respond, “Yes. Hire me.”

It’s made me realize how many people out there, in all walks of life, are terrified of public speaking. In fact, according to a Chapman University survey on American fears, public speaking ranked No. 1, ahead of heights, bugs and even drowning. That’s right, people fear public speaking more than dying!

But here’s the good news: It’s really not that tough.

The reason for the inherent fear is that presenters think they’re going to screw up and look foolish. Well, as someone who has been speaking in front of audiences for 40 years, I can tell you I have screwed up on more than one occasion. It happens.

The point is you should never go into it thinking that you’re going to mess up. Ball players don’t get up to bat thinking they’re going to strike out. You should instead focus on what you’re going to say and do, and its impact. If you worry about making mistakes, you’ve set yourself up for failure. Remember it’s not about you; it’s about your audience.

I was able to get over the fear of getting in front of an audience at a young age because I have a theater background. So audiences have never really been an issue for me. Now you’re asking, “Well I don’t have a background like that, so what do I do?”

Great question. Here’s the answer: You don’t need that background if you follow the steps below. These are things I’ve been doing all along that anyone can master.

So the next time you have to deliver a speech, facilitate a training, make a business presentation, give a toast, tell a story in front of a large group, or do just about anything in front of an audience, remember these key tips:

I: Know Your Subject Matter

1.  You’re the expert, let that show through.

2.  Review your material, facts, subject matter, jokes, story or toast before you have to present.

3.  Get comfortable by practicing, practicing, practicing. Did I mention practicing?

4.  You’re not going to know everything but you should know where to find answers.

II: Get The Audience Involved

1.  Get everyone to participate

2.  Ask your audience questions (even if they only respond with head shakes that’s still participation). And lead them to the answers, don’t just tell them.

3.  Use appropriate humor, but don’t embarrass anyone or you’ll lose the audience (us vs. them).

4.  If you don’t have an answer, don’t guess or make something up. Know where to find the answer(s) and let them know you will get back to them. And don’t forget to follow up or your credibility will be lost.

III: Control Tangents

 1. Stay on time and on point.

 2. Politely stop run-offs (yours and your audience’s).

 3. Stay focused on the reason you are there.

 4. Keep it moving and brisk; you only have a finite amount of time.

IV: Body Language and Attitude

1. What message does your body language send?

       *I am terrified

       *I have no idea what I am talking about

       *I cannot wait for this to be over … how much longer do I have?

2.  Look like you are enjoying yourself (you should be). If you’re not having fun presenting, your audience is not enjoying listening to you — or your message.

3. The more enthusiasm, energy and interactivity you incorporate into your presentation, the higher the retention levels. People will remember more when they’re engaged and not bored.

4.  Make eye contact with your audience. Eye contact says “Trust me and believe what I am saying.” Eyes on a PowerPoint or manual says “I don’t know the topic well enough.”

5.  Smile! It sets a great tone even in a serious presentation, and can really help ease the tension.

V: Be Yourself!

 1. Just because you’re in front of a group doesn’t mean you should transform into someone you’re not.

 2. Find a style that fits your personality so you are comfortable. When you’re comfortable so is the audience.

 3. Humor is great if you’re someone who is funny. If you’re not, your speech will die a slow painful death. 

And here is my final tip. I am about to share with you the greatest facilitation tip ever devised. This is based on my years of presenting so I know it works. Trust me. Here goes:

I want you to think about the worst training or meeting you have ever attended. Now, take a piece of paper and write down everything that you thought made it so bad that it still resonates with you today. Was it the subject matter, lack of preparation, or the speaker or facilitator? Was it the room, what you learned or didn’t learn, or how it related to you in your everyday life or job? Was it your enjoyment level, or your retention level of the topic(s)?

Write that list now, and please write legibly. I will give you three minutes (the clock is ticking …).

OK, time’s up. Take a long look at the list you’ve created. Marvel at how well you were able to identify all the things that made that particular facilitator, training or meeting so bad.

Now here’s the tip:  Don’t do any of those things!

 Simple right? Everyone can identify what bad facilitation is. When it’s our turn to facilitate however, we usually do the exact things we know are bad. If it’s bad why do it?

So avoid those things, remember all the tips, have fun, and watch what happens to your facilitation and presentation skills. You’ll thank me, and so will your audience.

John Quattrucci is president of Stuart & Associates, a retail consulting firm specializing in programs for sales and margin growth and returns reduction.