I have always had a fear of making presentations in front of a group.
Whether the group was made up of 50 or 500 people, I was always extremely nervous when I had to present, and I struggled, stumbled and stuttered.
I can remember in one particular presentation almost 20 years ago to a local business organization. I was speaking from a slide deck on a subject that I knew extremely well. But rather than rising to the occasion and wooing the crowd, I felt myself going into what I can only describe as a place of darkness. I couldn’t remember anything I said, and worse, I couldn’t remember the audience. I gave a horrible, robotic performance.
Naturally, this fear of presentations is a handicap for anyone in business.
When Klipfolio was just starting out, I could conceal my presentation phobia. But as our company grew, it became clear that being able to present effectively, both to employees and to outside audiences, was critical to our success.
I knew I had to improve my presentation skills. But how?
In today’s blog, I look at how I am overcoming my fears - and provide tips for anyone who is as tongue-tied as I used to be.
Understand the nature of your fear
Different people may have different reasons for being afraid of making a presentation in public. Reflecting upon my own fears has allowed me to figure out something very important - an understanding of what I am comfortable with:
- I do not like presenting to large groups because I feel I can’t connect with the audience. That is a big one. But it’s less about the size of the crowd than I thought. What’s important for me is connection. I’m at my best when I feel I can connect personally with everyone in the room.
- I am not comfortable reading from a script. I find that unnatural. Being able to name that fear made me realize I am much more relaxed when I am conveying information in a more informal way.
- I had no formal training as a speaker. Not everyone is a natural - I certainly wasn’t. Once I realized that part of my fear stemmed from not having training in public speaking, the solution was obvious: Get help.
In fact, once I knew what I was afraid of - and by extension what I was comfortable with - I was able to develop tactics to address each of my fears.
I engineer the presentation format to suit my style
Once I realized I am more comfortable in smaller group settings, I started to consciously engineer the format in which I presented. Although my comfort level has increased, I decline invitations to make a direct speech to a large audience; I will suggest that instead of a speech, the event be structured as a ‘fireside chat’ - a format that has me interacting on stage with one or more other people.
That way, it feels like I am presenting to a small group (something I like). That increases my comfort level significantly.
A variation on this is the ‘interview style’, where one person asks me questions about a particular subject. Again, I find this is a more natural way (for me) of conveying information and no matter what the size of the audience, I’m comfortable because I have a one-on-one connection with the person interviewing me.
One other format in which I feel comfortable is ‘the panel’ - where I am one of several people being tapped for information.
To make things more fluid (and maybe to shift the focus off me!) I like to involve others in my presentations when possible.
At Klipfolio, we have monthly all-hands sessions where we come together to talk about what’s happening in the company. I usually have a particular topic I want to speak about, but I start off by introducing any new people and mentioning various work anniversaries. This breaks any original tension and creates a bond among those present, even before I start speaking.
I make sure I know my subject matter
This one should be obvious. To increase my confidence, I need to know that I know my subject matter before getting up in front of an audience.
If I have mastered my subject, I find it easy to slide into my presentation and weave in stories or answer questions during and after. This reduces my anxiety level and puts me firmly in control of any presentation situation.
If I am giving a presentation, there are a few things I do in advance. First, I sketch out the important content details. Once I have the logic and storyline worked out, I distill it down to its essence. I turn those main points into bullets which I can put up on slides (not too many) or use as my crib notes. Less is more - have a look at Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule for slides.
Mastering my subject matter also allows me to answer questions with ease.
I actually enjoy taking questions. I like presentations to feel natural, and what is more natural than a conversation? I feel I am at my best when I have to field unexpected questions… again, it’s that feeling of being connected.
I get help when I need it
Fear of public speaking is widespread (go figure!) and there are many resources available for people who want to overcome it.
I work with a CEO coach who has experience in a number of managerial functions. He knows our business, and more importantly, he knows me.
It was actually this coach who suggested I start holding regular all-hands meetings, and helped me work through the presentation jitters one by one.
People not interested in a coach will find other tools to help them.
There are many books, including Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, Dale Carnegie’s The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TED: The 9 Public-speaking secrets of the world’s top minds, or Bruna Martinuzzi’s Presenting with Credibility, to name a few that are focused on business.
A search in YouTube will turn up any number of videos explaining how to present effectively. One example: How to give a TED Talk.
Even just Googling ‘overcome fear of presentations’ will provide how-to guides such as this one from CNBC or this one from Forbes magazine (both of which are business-focused) and this one which focuses on reducing anxiety.
There are also groups and forums available for anyone looking to practice. The most commonly known of these is Toastmasters International, a club aimed at developing people’s ability to make speeches. Toastmasters has clubs in most cities. (You can look up the best Toastmasters speeches on YouTube, such as this winner from 2014.)
The International Association for Business Communicators (IABC) also has some tips. The IABC website has resources, including articles and podcasts, though it may require some digging to find what you want.
If you want to take things one step further, you can study what makes presentations effective (hint: keeping them short, focused and personal).
Practice has eventually made me better.
And I can tell you that when I do connect, and when it feels natural I actually do enjoy making presentations. Dealing with some of my fears has allowed me to keep up with the cadence of communications that are a big part of my work. I now say ‘yes’ to many more requests than I did in the past.
And I no longer panic at the thought of speaking in public.
Allan Wille is a Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Klipfolio. He’s also a designer, a cyclist, a father and a resolute optimist.
Originally published October 5, 2017, updated Jun, 18 2019