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Battling the butterflies

If the thought of giving a speech makes you feel faint, don’t worry. Here are a few tips that will turn you from a nervous wreck into a star presenter.

Surveys consistently find that most Americans dread giving presentations to approximately the same degree that they dread death and dismemberment.

For a long time I felt that way. The idea of standing up in front of people and laying out my thoughts filled me with terror. My hands became cold, my mouth became dry, my voice rose half an octave.

My mind, far from being charged and inspired, became as fluid as a fossil in amber.

What a shame, too. Just when you most wanted people to think you’re a person of substance and ideas, you morphed into a skittering insect.

What causes the nervousness? Paradoxically, it’s the desire to do a great job. It’s like coming to bat in Little League, and you want to hit a home run so bad that you strike out on three pitches, and look bad doing it. Wanting prevents you from having.

It’s a serious problem, especially for a communicator. So I set out some time ago to learn what I could, and overcome my problem. Here are some ideas that I have used to combat the butterflies. Maybe they will be of use to you, too:

“Relax.” So easy for others to say, so hard to actually do. It’s a psychological thing, but you can sneak up on it physically. Your body provides you with adrenaline because it perceives you are in danger. But adrenaline is only good for running and wrestling–useless for making sense. Before speaking, work out. A quick walk will flush some of the excess energy out from your system.

Conduct a meeting with your body. Locate the tension–check out your spine, especially–and tell it to get lost. Your brain switched on the adrenaline, and it can switch it off. During the talk, allow yourself to pause every now and then, and breathe. It’s OK–people want you to breathe.

Talk before talking. Instead of waiting offstage to begin, teeth chattering and knees knocking–people can hear you even behind the curtain–why not come out and meet a few people in the audience? Find out what their interest level is, and what they already know. Get an idea what they will be receptive to. It will loosen you up, and once your talk starts you will be looking at faces you know are not your enemies.

Be a salesman. My father sold Fuller Brush door to door when I was a teenager, and it drove me crazy helping him, ringing doorbells and greeting people with air fresheners. I hated who I was, pressing the buzzer. My dad loved it, though. It helped him get outside himself. He saw that lots of people enjoy having someone to talk to, and are happy take a catalog in exchange. For them it’s a pleasant ritual. Buying has more to do with that pleasure than with deodorant. So respect the ritual, step outside yourself, and give people something to enjoy.

Give a gift. If you think about your talk as an obligation, you poison it. Think of it as a valuable gift you are giving your listeners. Doing this takes all the pressure off you, and puts all the focus on the gift itself. And it changes your attitude to one of conscious helpfulness. You’re no longer trying to impress, you’re trying to give people something they will really like. It’s a happiness thing. So be happy.

Arrest the imposter. Deep down we all think we don’t know enough, which is why we overfortify ourselves for the presentation. Too many hours of scheming and programming. We arm ourselves for arguments that no one will present, that only we care about. It’s nonsense. Intercept these who-do-I-think-I-am thoughts and squarsh ’em with a hammer.

Think Copernican. When you are nervous you are indulging in Ptolemaic theory–that the solar system revolves around you and your need to perform well. Ptolemaic theory is only true for parents of infant children. Copernicus was one smart dude. He not only figured out how the solar system works, and that we occupy a much less central place in the spectrum of things than we imagined, but he waited until he was dead to publish the news, cleverly avoiding papal prison.

Abandon the fort. When you stand behind the dais, you subconsciously defend it. The dumbest thing I ever saw was a junior-high principal addressing 30 parents from the other side of the gym, simply because the microphone had a short cord! He seemed to be in another ZIP code. Better to switch off the mike and sit down with the parents.

Speak, don’t write. Nothing is deadlier than a scripted talk, except perhaps the person giving it. Instead of sitting up late the night before, typing a talk out word-for-word, ask yourself: What do my listeners need to know? What is the best gift I can give them tomorrow? Even if the very best words don’t come tomorrow, they will be good enough. Put your outline on the Powerpoint, and give people your speech as a handout.

Curb your Powerpoint slides. If you’re prone to nervousness, Powerpoint handcuffs you with a set presentation. What would happen if, instead of a 50-slide show, you trimmed it to 8 or 10 outline notes and supporting charts, and you “winged it” the rest of the time? It would put you in the moment, assure your audience that you know your stuff, and allow you to improve, in ways a set show can’t.

All these insights came hard for me, because they ran counter to my need not to embarrass myself, and for everything to go perfectly.

But perfectly isn’t where it’s at. Connecting with people, and letting them know you really believe what you are saying, is what counts. And it’s hard to do that when you’re juggling lasers and mice and wireless mikes.

It sounds scary, but in fact it’s quite exhilarating to take charge of the talk yourself. Think how proud you will be when you are able to stand up in front of people and wing it. A person who can do that can do anything.

You’ll still get butterflies. It’s not like your adrenal system will shut down. But think back. There was a time when those funny winged creatures delighted you.

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