The presentation came out of nowhere. What to do?

by Peter Watts

Presentations can strike without notice. A colleague gets hit by ill health and you get hit by their presentation.

How to avoid that deer-in-the-headlights moment?

The key to success is your ability to rapidly master your colleague’s presentation so that it works for you as smoothly as it was about to work for them. Get the content right, and all else will follow.

Organize the slides to work for you

The biggest mistake you could make would be attempting to deliver your colleagues’ PowerPoints unmodified. That was their presentation. It made sense to them. You need something that makes sense for you.

First make a copy of the slides. You’re about to perform high-speed field surgery and you’ll cut deeper if you know a backup is saved elsewhere.

Find out about the audience. What do they need to know, and where does that intersect with what you know. Edit the slide deck to focus in on those happy intersections.

If there are any essential slides that you’re unsure about, have a colleague talk you through the salient points and help you put them into a context.

Where there are slides you don’t understand but that aren’t connected to the main purpose, delete them. Make that slide deck as compact as possible.

Similarly, delete any superfluous bullet-points that might be hanging around. Make your  slides as clean as possible to minimise the chance of audience questions being prompted by stray bullets.

Eliminate anything that might leave you staring at the screen mumbling “Well, I think that point is self-explanatory”. No-one is fooled. You are clueless in public. Zap any such slides or slide content before you present.

Structure

Put the content you are least confident of into the least memorable part of the presentation: the middle. Place strong content at the beginning and end of the presentation. Don’t worry if your colleague’s 90 minute presentation is now your 30 minute one. Brevity is an art form.

When it comes to any content that you are not comfortable with however, do keep challenging yourself: “Does this really have to be in the presentation?” If in doubt, then either delete, or remember the option of “Hide Slide”.

Questions

Before starting the presentation, plan for how to handle questions. It’s quite possible that the person you are replacing had knowledge of specialist topics that you don’t, and that there might be audience questions about those topics.

Remember as a first-base, that you are stepping in at short notice. Without you, there would be no presentation, and even though you can’t actually see it, the super-hero cape is already fluttering from your shoulders. Being unable answer specialist questions about someone else’s specialism is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.

Perhaps subject matter experts are available who while not wishing to present, would be happy to take questions for you.

If such an individual isn’t available, never be tempted to bluff your answers. Resolve that for any questions you can’t answer, you will make a note of them and get back to the audience members after the presentation.

This approach upholds your credibility and ensures people get the right answers. It also creates a reason for you or a colleague to talk to the audience beyond the presentation and thereby further develop the relationship.

What experiences of impromptu presentations have you had, or are maybe having?

What are your tips for turning unexpected pitch into richly deserved triumph?

Presentation nerves

Nine proven routes to calm and confident presenting

by Peter Watts

Beating presentation nerves can seem like a battle; a no-holds-barred FIGHT to overcome your fears. Bosses and colleagues, like drill sergeants, urge us from the trenches and up onto the no-mans land of the stage.

“You’re team needs you. Get out there soldier!”

This approach is completely wrong.

First point to be aware of: Presentation nerves can never be eliminated, and it would not be desirable to do so. Controlled nervous tension can promote excellence.

Second point to be aware of: The tangible bodily sensations that come with presentation nerves, can be easily managed if we understand the mechanics that create them.

That’s what this article will help you to do. I’m not going to tell you how to beat presentation nerves, because I believe that as a natural bodily reaction we should work with our jitters, not against them. When we focus on beating nerves we just drive them deeper into our psyches. Instead, we can understand them, and adopt simple measures that make presenting a significantly easier process.

Do any of the following affect you when presenting?

  • Tightness of breath
  • Rapid heart-rate
  • Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Cold or clammy hands
  • Trembling
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Nausea
  • Tension headaches
  • Loss of concentration
  • Dry-throat
  • Scratchy voice
  • Low self-esteem

If yes, then within the following articles, you will find practical measures that work with your body to overcome those reactions. Each heading is a link. Simply click on it to review the associated article:

Breathing yourself calm

Sensations associated with presentation nerves are soothed by effective breathing. Find out how controlling your out-breathe lowers your heart rate to control sweating, blushing, trembling, blood-pressure, and nervous tension.

Calming the butterflies

Presentation nerves suppress appetite, so that when we approach a presentation we are more in need of food than we realize. As blood sugars collapse, our concentration collapses with them, and our stomachs develop those familiar butterfly wings.

Find out what to eat, what not to eat, and when to eat, in order to calm presentation butterflies

Dealing with dry mouth

Voice rapidly heading for a croak? Or afraid it might? In this post we solve the dry-mouth issue, and identify the best drinks to keep your voice flowing smoothly.

No sweat

Sweating can be an unpleasant presentation issue, and one we become acutely aware of.  Basic preventative measures help mitigate the problem.

Cold hands

Colds hands are a standard stress response. Find out why this is, and how something as simple as holding a warm cup can be an instant cure.

I think, therefore I am

How to control the messages we give ourselves before a presentation, to ensure we remain calm and in control during the presentation.

Puncturing perfectionism

Preparation is essential for presenting, but when we topple over into perfectionism, we create an impossible mountain to climb. This post discusses how to reduce those mountains back into molehills.

Taking the plunge

The first plunge can be the toughest. The more often you take it though, the easier it becomes. Repetition is the most sure-fire way to becoming a confident presenter.

Coaching yourself after a presentation

What happens after the presentation? How we coach ourselves once the event is finished will set up our confidence for next time. Find out how to be your own personal coach after every presentation.

Fear of public speaking is perfectly natural, and you are not alone in experiencing it. Indeed, some surveys have shown that for many people it isn’t just a fear, but their number one fear, and that’s why becoming a confident and competent public speaker is such a wonderful goal. If you can achieve this goal, then what other goals also become so much more achievable.

I believe public speaking is therefore a gateway activity. Once we prove to ourselves that we can successfully speak in public, we are empowered onwards to achieve so much more.

Enjoy all the articles linked from this blog, and if there are any areas of presentation nerves not dealt with here, that you might like help with, then please do post a comment.

It will be my pleasure to forward you the extra ideas that might help you forward into the highly rewarding world of presenting.

Confidence tricks: The thawed paws pause

A warming NLP recipe for presentation confidence

by Peter Watts

Hold a warm cup of tea. Or coffee. Or hot chocolate. It doesn’t matter. Hold a warm cup, and as you savor the heat radiating into your hands, a wonderful sense of calm comes with it.

Do this shortly before a presentation and you’ll get exactly the same reaction. Stress seems to mysteriously drain out of you.

There is a whole lexicon of words such as “toasty” that evoke the pleasure of warm hands and feet, and there is a physiological reason why we’ve developed them.

When we become nervous about something, presenting for example, one of the first physical symptoms is cold hands. As we enter fight or flight, our body diverts blood flow away from extremities such as the hands, and redirects it to the vital organs of the core. Because of this we develop the cold clammy hand sensation associated with presentation nerves.

This sets off a chain reaction. Our subconscious mind says to itself “Hello. I appear to have cold hands right now. I get cold hands when I’m nervous. Therefore I must be nervous, and being aware of that fact, am going to become even more nervous.”

If cold hands represent a state of nervous tension, then warm hands represent the exact opposite: relaxation. When we have warm hands, the mind associates this with a state of calm and safety, hence all the snuggle type language we have referring to the pleasantness of warm paws.

Knowing this, we can use a simple technique that I call “The Thawed Paws Pause” to trick our mental wiring into calmness pre-presentation.

Next time you are going to present, accept the offer of a hot drink. The contents of the cup are of secondary importance, but if you have a choice, then my recommendation would be something that is caffeine-free.

As you await your time to present, hold the cup and concentrate your mind on that lovely warmth entering your hands. Your mind is about to get a surprise, in that your internal dialogue is going to go something like this:

“I’m about to make a presentation. I get stressed when I make presentations, and when I get stressed I have cold hands, but hang on a moment! I have warm hands! When I get stressed I have cold hands, but right now I appear to have warm hands! Ah, I therefore can’t be stressed.”

As your subconscious plays with this concept, the body starts to stand down some of the reactions we associate with presentation nerves, and a degree of those stage-fright jitters slip away.

It’s a simple trick, and one of the earliest I was taught when I first started presenting.

Next time you feel stressed or nervous, check the temperature of your hands. Icy? Take a moment to hold a warm cup. Feel tension melt into your thawed paws pause.

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

Using song lyrics for pleasure, polish, and presentation performance

by Peter Watts

Bob Dylan will help your presentations come to life. In fact not just Dylan; whether your genre is rock, soul, country, or blues, you can have fun with a presentation by slipping in the odd line of lyrics from your favorite song.

Why would you do this? Three reasons:

Firstly, to bring personal pleasure to your presentation. If you’re enjoying the session, then your audience will enjoy it too. Embedding the occasional song lyric, an aside that is meant for you alone, will quietly spike your energy and keep you upbeat.

Secondly, it helps with nerves. The pre-planned song lyric, chosen because you like it and can fit it into your narrative, acts like a pin to pop the bubble of any internal tension that has built up while you are talking.

Finally, in terms of their prose quality, song lyrics represent a highway of diamonds we can borrow at leisure, adding dimensions of rhetoric to presentations. They are a ready-made source of inspiration.

In the classroom, I suggest to teams that they incorporate such lyrics into their presentations. Despite initially believing that the trainer has lost his mind, everyone soon discovers what an effective technique this is to bring pleasure to presenting.

The steps to follow are simple:

  • What is my key message?
  • What song title or lyric do I want to include?
  • How can I drop that lyric seamlessly into my presentation in such a way that it fits with the message without drawing attention to itself?

Surprisingly high-calibre speakers often practice this art; Supreme Court Justices for example! According to a recent article on the NPR show “All Things Considered”, Dylan lyrics have found their way into no less than 186 court rulings. Even the supremely straight-laced Antonin Scalia has been known to drop the occasional Dylanism!

You can find the full NPR article by following this link, and maybe also, somewhere in this blog, you might even find my own gem of Dylan.

Presentation structure: Handling the questions at the end

by Peter Watts

The most valuable thing that you can know when asked a question is frequently not so much the answer, but why the person is asking the question in the first place:

 

Interest

Your presentation has provided just enough information to hook the audience’s attention and now they want to know more!

 

Gratitude

The audience enjoyed your presentation, and liked the way you put forward your ideas. They are now showing polite appreciation by putting a couple of final questions to you.

 

Security

The audience has been tempted by your message, and is looking for further reassurance before they move to the next stage with you.

 

Misunderstanding

Something you said in your presentation didn’t quite make sense or has been misunderstood. The audience is therefore giving you the opportunity to clarify.

 

Vested interest

Someone in the audience has a vested interest in discrediting your message. Their hostile questioning is their attempt to do so, while at the same time betraying their hostility both to you and to their colleagues.

 

When taking questions at the end of a presentation, it’s important to keep in mind two things:

 

There are several reasons why someone might be asking you a question. It’s important to understand that reason and then handle the question accordingly.

 

There is no rule that says you are the oracle-of-all-wisdom. It is 100% acceptable to say to someone, “That is a great question and I’ll need to check with a colleague to make sure I bring you the correct answer.”

 

Here is the basic process for handling questions:

 

Maintain open body language

It is easy for us to slip into a defensive body posture when being questioned. This sets the questioner up for confrontation even when the question itself is completely innocent. Make sure you do not fold your arms or place your hands on your hips while taking a question.

 

Listen carefully

While someone is putting a question to you, concentrate on listening to their every word. Remember that there may be any one of several motivations behind the question and unless you listen carefully, it will be difficult to identify exactly what information your interrogator is seeking.

 

Check your understanding

Repeat the question back, gently re-phrasing it a little, and ask the questioner to confirm that you have correctly understood them. If you yourself did not understand any part of the question then ask them to tell you a little more before you answer. You would be surprised at how often this exercise prevents some major misunderstandings.

 

Answer honestly

If you can answer the question, then go right ahead! If however you are unsure, then be upfront about this and say that you will need to check with a colleague.

Not only does this boost the audience’s perception of your integrity as a speaker, it also creates a valuable follow-up opportunity for after your presentation!


Beating presentation nerves: Make it happen

by Peter Watts

“Apprenticeship should not be put off, for fear grows upon us day by day. What we must attempt appears continually more alarming, and while we are deliberating when we will begin, we find that the time for beginning is past.”

These words were written 2000 years ago as guidance for young Romans starting out on their careers as public speakers. They remain true for us today. Whether your challenge is to speak to a more senior audience, or is simply to speak at all, the time for doing it is now!

Public speaking is often like jumping into the sea during that first day at the beach. You have to nerve yourself for the shock of the cold, but once in the water, you find it’s not as freezing as you feared. The quotation reminds us that the longer we hesitate, the harder it becomes to make that plunge. We must break the shock barrier, and enter the water.

The entry is sometimes forced upon us. For example, the boss may tell us we have to make a presentation next week. If no such catalyst occurs, we have to find that starting point for ourselves and create our own opportunity:

  • offer to make a presentation to your colleagues or team
  • present new products or services to an existing customer
  • offer to take part in a presentation to a new customer
  • give a talk in a social, political, or church group to which you belong
  • join the Toastmasters organization which develops speakers around the world

The cultures of the world offer maxims such as “a journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single foot-step”. These all tell us the same thing; “take the plunge, make it happen”.

You are a confident presenter. You need to give yourself the chance to find that out!

Come on in, the water’s lovely!

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

Pace, precision, and practice

by Peter Watts

Astro frowned. “What’s a time and speed trap?”

“Usually begins with a single step,” West said. “Your first step sets off the trap. Then you have to get in and out before the trap completes its sequence. You need accuracy and speed to get through it. I imagine that as soon as one of us steps on the first stepping-stone, the sequence is set.” 

Matthew Reilly

“The Six Sacred Stones”

A team of treasure hunters face a death maze of trap-activating stepping stones. There is no turning back. All die if but one of them places a foot wrong. What’s more, it’s against the clock; take too long, and those traps activate anyway. Their leader, Jack West, observes “You need accuracy and speed to get through it”.

Standing at the edge of a presentation we have an advantage denied to West and his team – we can practice our moves before we enter. As my colleague Gareth Williams comments in his response to “Puncturing Perfectionism”, pre-presentation practice is an essential.

The secret to successful presentation rehearsal is to run through your presentation out loud, from beginning to end, pausing only to note down the things that work well, and the things that don’t!

In the real world, when something doesn’t work during a presentation delivery, you can’t stop and make repairs mid-journey. You have to keep going. The same discipline is applied to practice sessions. Note down where it was that the road became pot-holed, and then exactly as if the dry-run were a real presentation, keep going!

  • By continuing to your conclusion before making corrections you see the presentation in the big picture and solutions appear naturally

  • You ensure equal practice time is dedicated to the whole presentation and you don’t become bogged down in one section

  • By not over-focussing on one spot, you avoid your wheel digging down into the presentation mud, to leave you frustrated and struck

Run through the presentation twice; once to correct and once to validate the corrections. The more important the presentation, the more times you might want to rehearse it, but do avoid falling into the trap of perfectionism.

Confident presenters show precision and pace

and precision and pace show practice.

I think, therefore I am: Part of “Presentation Nerves”

Cogito Ergo sum

by Peter Watts

The philosopher Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”. For presenters, this line of wisdom is extended to:

“I am what I think”

Start a presentation thinking “I’m confident and I’m prepared”, and your session unfolds in accordance with that thought. Nerves diminish, and you move easily from point to point. Go into a presentation thinking “I don’t want to do this and I can’t remember what I’m meant to be talking about”, and you’ll find that this too will come to pass!

What we tell ourselves is our reality before a presentation, all too easily becomes our reality during the presentation.

This is the same world as that inhabited by professional athletes. What words go through the mind of an athlete as they line-up at the start of a race?Words that focus on victory, or words that focus on defeat?

If an athlete focussed on the message “I’m going to come out of these blocks, surge forward ten steps, and then trip over my own feet and go flat on my face” this self-destructive mantra would become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Professional sports people visualise success and maintain a continuous inner-dialogue that supports that vision. As presenters we have that same inner dialogue.

What is yours telling you about presenting? Is it positive or negative? Passionate or pessimistic?

Be aware of what your inner voice is telling you. Challenge negatives and praise positives. If the voice predicts doom, then challenge back with success. If the voice says “You’re going to fail”, then say back “I’m going to succeed!”

Remember pro-athletes and what works for them. The same sports psychology techniques also work for us!

“I think therefore I am”

I am therefore, what I think

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

No Sweat: Part of “Presentation Nerves”

by Peter Watts

The visual opposite of confidence, is sweat. As dark rings blossom beneath the armpits, a statement of “Nervous” telegraphs to the audience. Simple steps can prevent this happening.

Nervousness isn’t the only reason we sweat when presenting; the explanation can be as simple as the temperature of the room we find ourselves standing in. We have come from one temperature zone outside the building, passed through another in the lobby, and then hit a third as we entered the conference room. These temperature fluctuations conspire with our heightened nervous state to make us perspire.

Sweating is something that as presenters we should anticipate and manage.  

Wear a light t-shirt against your skin to act as a blotter. V-necks are best, and they must be short sleeved so the armpit is completely covered. The classic round-necked, no sleeve variety will fail in the sweat-test by not offering all-over blotter protection. Choose the lightest, thinnest fabric available so heat escapes, while sweat remains hidden.

What about the face and forehead? For these areas, keep three things in mind:

  • Rushing to your presentation will literally make you hot, flushed, and sweaty. Be in the room at least 15 minutes ahead of time so you can acclimatise and cool down.
  • Your grandmother was right when she told you to always carry a clean handkerchief! Even though your forehead is not nearly as sweaty as you might think (a single bead of sweat can feel like a gushing torrent), it will help your confidence if you can give your brow a quick dab just to make sure. Why a handkerchief and not a tissue? Because tissues can disintegrate and it has been known for presenters to go through a whole presentation with fragments of tissue stuck to their foreheads!
  • Facial sweating stops once we start speaking. If you become aware of perspiration then keep going, it will pass.

Breaking into a sweat is a natural, if slightly unpleasant aspect of presenting that needs to be managed rather than cured.

Dress for sweat! Choose clothes that are comfortable, cool, and concealing. Place a blotter layer against your skin. Have a handkerchief to hand just in case.

Finally, allow yourself plenty of time. The calmer you are, the cooler you’ll be.

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:

Beating Back Butterflies – Part of “Presentation Nerves”

Lepidoptera Stomachus

Lepidoptera Stomachus

by Peter Watts

Lepidoptera Stomachus, or “Butterflies in the Tummy” can invest our stomachs with a fluttering, pulsing, almost electrical life of their own.

Frequent presenting is a great way to lose weight. The person scheduled to speak after lunch can be easily spotted – they’re the one not eating at the buffet as their blood sugars, essential for concentration, plummet down to their socks.

In a previous blog we discussed the importance of oxygen to the presenter. In this one, we’ll consider the role of calories.

During Fight or Flight our appetite is suppressed. After all, if you’re nose-to-nose with a predator, then now isn’t the time for a light snack; not unless you want to be the light snack! If you’ve been stressed about presenting for the past few hours (days?) then you haven’t been eating.

Our bodies and brains need calories to function. Even if we’d like to lose weight and are tempted to regard loss of interest in food as a good thing, not eating will sap energy, reduce concentration, and contribute to tension headaches and trembling limbs.

Eat within two hours of your presentation. You may not feel hungry, but you must maintain the body’s fuel supply. If it’s only 30 minutes till show-time then the emergency food of choice is the banana. Bananas, as any athlete will tell you, are power food. High in natural sugars, they quickly digest for an ideal pre-presentation snack.

Avoid the following:

  • Dairy products (They stimulate mucus and congest the voice)

  • Red meat (Hard to digest and energy sapping)

  • Citrus (Acidity when you’re stressed upsets the stomach)

  • Beans (You figure it out!)

While it would be a mistake to eat a heavy meal immediately before a presentation, it’s equally wrong to starve yourself. When stressed, your body’s natural hunger signals are shut-down. Maintaining calorie intake therefore becomes a rational process, consciously taking care of your physical need for sustenance.

“Have I eaten today?” If the answer is no, then ensure that you do. You’ll find that miraculously, you feel better prepared for the challenge ahead.

For more ideas on how to control presentation nerves, try the following Presenters’s Blog posts:


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