How To Improve Your Presentation Skills

Let’s go back to Roman times when it was considered to be rather good sport to feed Christians to the lions! On one particular day, the carnage was going pretty much as usual when an odd thing happened….

…One of the Christians in the arena managed to get close enough to whisper something to the lion. The lion suddenly stopped in its tracks, turned and crept away with its tail between its legs! Well, as you can imagine, the crowd went wild. The Emperor was equally impressed. So much so that he offered to spare the Christian’s life if he would tell him what he had whispered to the lion.

When in front of the Emperor, the Christian simply said, “I just told him he would have to say a few words after dinner.”

Ok so I know this story isn’t new, however, the lion’s reaction should not surprise anyone who has been asked to “say a few words.” If you are like most people, that jolt of adrenaline that courses through your body has a number of interesting effects.  Your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes shallow. You might also find your palms get sweaty, your knees go wobbly, and your mind goes completely blank.  Then starts a vicious circle!  Trust me on this…you’re not alone.

A number of years ago, The Sunday Times published a list of people’s greatest fears. The fear of public speaking came top, while “death” came well down the list at seventh place. Though I don’t personally believe that most people would rather die than speak, I have had the response, “Yes, Mike, but you can only die once!”

The Problem

So why then do so many of us have this reaction when asked to speak in front of a group?

Well, speaking in public can make us feel that we are in a threatened position and, when we feel threatened, the body will instinctively react (fight or flight response).  Blood gets diverted from the brain to the major muscles, enabling us to face the threat. But when the blood then leaves the brain, our ability to think clearly and process information decreases.

So that’s the physical reaction. But how come we are feeling threatened in the first place?

Well, we come up with various reasons: We are afraid we will forget what we planned to say. We think our nervousness will show and that we will make a complete mess of things.  When it boils down to it though, it is most often because we feel inadequate in a particular situation. It’s that fear of rejection again. That we just aren’t good enough.  That we will appear stupid in front of others.  It is not necessarily what we think we are that holds us back, it is more what we think we are not.

Patterns of low self-esteem, self-doubt and fear are set, for most of us, quite early on in life. These patterns can emerge as a lack of confidence as we get older and are called upon to ‘perform’ in front of others.

Another reason that speaking terrifies us is that we have simply never been taught what makes a good presentation.  It’s a skill that needs to be learnt like any other.

The Solution

As the ability to present effectively can determine our degree of success (some research has placed it as high as 85% in the business world) then facing up to any fears we have can potentially make a massive difference.

If you are curious as to how to overcome the fear of speaking in front of others then the following suggestions will help. Though you may still have that familiar surge of adrenaline, you will be able to convert that adrenaline rush into constructive energy by following these simple tips.

Prior to the Event

1. Prepare your presentation completely. I can speak from personal experience here (yes we all have had those…hmmm…learning experiences!).  Lack of preparation is likely to be the number one reason you will be dissatisfied with your own performance.  You only need to do this a couple of times to decide that…yep…I’m going to need to change my approach (I did that too, it can be quite emotionally painful!).  Good presenters do not just get up there and ‘wing it!’

Research your audience. Be clear on your objectives. Think about what you want to accomplish by giving this presentation.  The more clarity you have here, the more your mind will work toward achieving that objective.)

Prepare a good opening, outline your major points, and how you will conclude. When these support your initial objective then your presentation will flow logically from one point to the next. You must determine these parts of your presentation in up front. Consider stories that link in with the point you are getting across. By understanding your presentation ‘map’, you are far less likely to be nervous.

Better preparation = Less Anxiety.

2. Practice, practice, practice. Then practice again. Tape it. Listen to the tape. When we watch entertainers and people on television, it’s easy to forget we are actually seeing the result of hours of preparation – remember: true professionals NEVER ‘wing it’

3. Feel good about the way you will look. Dress the part.  Select something that will make you feel really confident.

4. Rest well before hand. Absolutely essential.  Again, if you are well-prepared, it will be easier to sleep well.

On The Day of the Presentation:

  • Try some vocal exercises: humming tunes up the vocal chords.
  • If you have time for another run-through then practice again. If you don’t have the time then find a quiet spot, sit comfortably and visualise yourself performing your presentation – just the way you want to do it.
  • See your audience positively respond – hear the applause. Experience good feelings for the audience – and yourself. Great athlete’s ALWAYS do this prior to their event. It is well known that mental rehearsals of physical acts are as good as the real thing – and better!
  • Arrive early to check the venue and become comfortable with the speaking area. Double-check any equipment you will be using is working ok.
  • Relax yourself with deep breathing. It brings oxygen to the brain. And that, of course, helps us think more clearly. It also helps us feel calmer.
  • If you can, make sure you spend some time with your audience prior to your presentation. This will help you feel more at ease – and give you some additional support!
  • Stay off the coffee and definitely no alcohol! Drink room-temperature water.
  • Move your body to release any tension. Stretching exercises are good.
  • Focus completely on your audience. Think about your message and your nervousness will subside.
  • Once you are introduced, make the most of the experience! Use the adrenaline rush to positive effect by walking onto the stage with 100% energy and enthusiasm.

If you follow these suggestions, you might find that you actually enjoy speaking to groups!  Once you realise you can present your ideas clearly and well then maybe you will find many more opportunities opening up to you than you ever thought possible!

Remember: Repetition is the key to success.

To Your Success,

Mike Yates

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