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How to be more confident when it’s time to present

If you get nervous when presenting, you’re not alone. More than 75% of us experience glossophobia – the fear of public speaking. In fact, it’s the most common social fear.

But feeling nervous or anxious needn’t be a barrier between a good presentation and a bad one. It just means we need to acknowledge the fear we experience and equip ourselves with the tools to handle it. We’ll explore a few of those tools in this blog.

The key to confidence is preparation

The idea of presenting in front of a room full of people can be enough to put off even thinking about your presentation, let alone starting it. But preparation is vital.

The fact is, the more preparation you put in, the more confident you’ll feel. You’ll know how to deliver the key points to get your message across and maximise the impact of what you want to say.

Remember too that confidence is contagious (yes, really!) When you’re more confident, your audience will have more confidence in you and what you’re saying. The same thing applies in reverse as well – when your audience has confidence in you, you’ll gain confidence in yourself.

It all comes down to neuroscience and the phenomenon of mirror neurons – brain cells that fire ‘when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.’

So if preparation is the key to confidence, what does good preparation look like?

For me, there are three steps:

  1. Practise your presentation
  2. Plan your delivery
  3. Focus on your stage presence

Practise your presentation

Putting together your presentation and slide deck is your first task. (If you need tips on where to start when creating a presentation, take a look at our blog Structuring your Presentation.)

Remember, though, that your finished slide deck is not your presentation – it’s you, presenting it.

So, take the time to practise and then practise some more (… and then some more). You’ll have heard this countless times before, but it cannot be emphasised enough. Carving out enough time to prepare is often the key to the success or failure of a presentation performance. It’s also where you’ll gain your confidence.

Don’t use your preparation time to correct typos or play with design. Instead, use it to work out what works for you in communicating your story and eliminating anything that doesn’t. You will only find this out by practising. If you continue to stumble or don’t feel like it’s working the way you wanted, don’t be afraid to rewrite, reorder or even start again – you will only gain confidence when you’ve got a presentation you’re comfortable with.

If you can, rehearse it in front of people you trust. Honest feedback is important, and it’s a valuable opportunity to see which parts of your presentation are working and which aren’t.

Plan your delivery

Once you are happy with your presentation, it’s time to focus on how you will deliver it.

There are basically three approaches you can take:

  • reading directly off a script
  • memorising a script
  • developing a set of bullet point cards that map out what you plan to say.

I imagine you’ve watched a presentation where the presenter has read their script aloud. You’ll know how distancing it is and how any connection with the audience slowly disappears. Try to avoid this if you can.

Memorising a script is mentally exhausting. It’s also risky. It might start off well, but one small mistake can suddenly alter the way you present as you struggle to remember your lines. This again creates distance between you and your audience.

Getting past this point is simple. It’s a matter of rehearsing (I will keep saying this!) to ensure the flow of words becomes second nature. When this happens, you can focus on delivering the talk with confidence. In turn, this will also allow you to improvise because improvisation only starts when our mindset is relaxed.

If you don’t have time to learn your speech off by heart, or don’t want to risk it, don’t worry. This is where bullet points on note cards come in. As long as you know what you want to cover under each bullet point, they can be a great aide memoire.

Focus on your stage presence

Having a solid presentation with a solid structure (that you’ve rehearsed until you can deliver it backwards!) should automatically give you a confidence boost. The final step is to focus on ways to boost your presence and your appearance of confidence on stage.

Here are a few tips.

Make eye contact with people in your audience

You’ll find this easier when you have rehearsed your presentation so you don’t have to rely on looking at your notes or your slides so much. It can be tempting to pick out one or two friendly faces, but this can get awkward for them and you! Do your best to look at as many different people as you can.

Watch your body language

If you’re nervous, it’s very easy to cross your arms in front of you to subconsciously protect yourself. You might also feel like a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ and find yourself frozen to the spot. Both of these signal your nerves, which isn’t great for those mirror neurons!

When you’re practising your presentation, focus on having an open posture – it will help you look more confident and feel more confident. Gestures can help too. For example, body language expert Carole Railton analysed 10 of the most popular TED Talks to see what they can teach us about strengthening our communication using gestures.

Avoid fillers

In everyday conversation we use lots of filler sounds – such as ‘um’, ‘ah’ or ‘so’ – and filler words – such as ‘actually’, ‘basically’ or ‘I mean’. They’re natural because they give us the time we need to formulate what we want to say next. But in a presentation, we know what we want to say next (or we should do!). Filler sounds and words therefore distract our audience from our message. You won’t be able to eliminate them entirely, but use your practice time to become more aware of the fillers you use and work on removing them.

Speed up and slow down

Varying the pace of what you’re saying is a great way to keep your audience engaged. You’ll likely tend to talk more quickly when you’re nervous, but your practice time will help you combat this tendency. It will also help you identify where it makes sense to speed up (for example, when you’re adding detail or rattling through some stats) and where it’s good to slow down (for example, when you’re making a key point).

Understand the power of the pause

Silence is incredibly powerful. It helps you focus attention on the most important parts of your presentation and exudes confidence. (This compilation of highlights from a few of Barack Obama’s speeches is a great reminder of the power of the pause.) When you’re practising your presentation, consider where pauses could help. And don’t forget that one or two seconds will feel like a long time to you – especially when you’re nervous! – but it won’t feel too long for your audience.

Embrace your time to shine

Nearly everyone gets nervous before a presentation. It’s completely natural. Nerves are adrenaline going into overdrive, a natural response you can use to sharpen your mind and improve your performance. In other words, feeling nervous isn’t a disaster.

Remember too that there’s no right or wrong way to give a good performance or be a naturally confident presenter. The best talks aren’t the ones that follow all the best practice guidelines. They’re the ones that offer something fresh, not formulaic.

So while I’ve given lots of advice here, there’s no need to take every piece of it on board, just the bits you think could work for you. Embrace what makes you and your idea special – and go out there and shine.

Steve Alford

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