The palpitations. The shirt sticking to your back. The frog in your throat that you suspect is actually a fully grown cane toad with a weight problem. Not everyone enjoys giving presentations. They can be daunting at the best of times, particularly early in your career, but even the most seasoned presenter can get unstuck if things go wrong – and eventually, something always goes wrong.
Whether this is getting stumped by a tricky question from your boss’s boss, or frazzled by a projector that refuses to recognise your laptop, it can cause serious stress and anxiety, which only makes the problem worse.
‘A lot of the symptoms of stress actually mitigate against being able to make a good presentation,’ says Dr David Lewis, neuropsychologist and the director of Mind Labs International. ‘Your mouth goes dry, which is not ideal if you’re trying to speak to people. You become very confused. Even ideas you were very familiar with before the presentation start to vanish from your memory.’
This isn’t just an issue for the individual involved either. Poor presentations are a productivity issue – both a waste of time and a failure of communication, which is of course why you’re supposed to be doing them in the first place. Thankfully, there are a few things we can do to stay on top of the nerves when things go wrong.
Preparation, preparation, preparation
‘For the human animal, the sense that you have no control over situations is what triggers the most negative stress,’ says Lewis. Preparation is the key to feeling in control of the situation. This could be having a plan B just in case something goes awry, but more generally it means knowing your material inside out and knowing how you’re going to approach it.
‘You really don’t want to walk into the room and not have an idea of how you’re going to do it. As a speaker, I always like to know how I’m going to get into the subject and how I’m going to get out of it,’ Lewis adds.
As anyone who’s been left stranded at the lectern by a crashed PowerPoint, a faulty clicker or a power cut knows, you can’t have complete control where technology is concerned. A recent study of 1,000 professionals who regularly give or attend presentations found that 25% of workers felt they had missed deadlines, 7% felt they had missed promotions and 15% felt they’d lost business as a result of tech problems. Nothing like blaming your tools...
That research was (somewhat predictably) conducted on behalf of a company that makes projectors and ‘visualisation tools’, Barco. Its global marketing manager for collaboration Lieven Bertier (also, somewhat predictably) emphasises the importance of having reliable, easy-to-use tech when presenting. ‘People don’t have time to learn a new tool,’ he says. ‘Your focus has to be 100% on the speech.’ Anything that requires three IT technicians and a master’s degree to operate is a definite no-no then.
Be confident, stupid
Feeling like you’re on top of your material is important, clearly. But so too is appearing like you’re on top of it. ‘Audiences tend to get what you give them,’ says Lewis. ‘They don’t have a preconception. So long as you remain in control and confident, they’re going to take that home – and the message you’re trying to communicate.’ Fake it till you make it.
Arguably the most important thing you’ll do today. ‘If you start to feel your anxiety rising for any reason, just take a few moments to compose yourself and make sure you’re not breathing too rapidly,’ Lewis says. Anxiety leads to faster breathing, which then makes you more anxious. It’s the kind of vicious circle that can leave your presentation in ruins and you sitting in a corner ventilating into a paper bag. Slow down and take a couple of deep breaths. In ten minutes it’ll all be over...