Nerves can be difficult to overcome, especially during important presentations. Nerves cause many people to stiffen up and go into what I call “Presenter mode” where their body tenses and their voice becomes more muted and monotone. Not only is this hard for the presenter, it’s also hard on the audience, because it’s difficult to listen to someone speak when they are overwhelmed by nerves. That’s why it’s important to have a few actions you can rely on to relax and feel more like yourself.
1. Think of your first word as a sigh
When people start speaking they often hold their breath when they start to speak. This can make the presenter’s voice sound strained which can magnify nerves. Instead, I recommend thinking of your first word as a sigh. If you sigh as you say “Hello” or “Alright everyone, let’s begin” it will help remind your body to exhale and relax. That way, when you start speaking you sound more at ease.
2. Move your body
When your body is tense, you have more adrenaline pumping through your system so you want to find active ways to remind your body that it can relax. One way is to remember how your body moves during a conversation. When you’re casually talking to someone, you move your hands when you talk and you twist your torso as you share ideas. But during a presentation, people tense up. Therefore when you're introducing yourself, move your torso and use your hands as you speak. That way you can release some of the tension that has built up to help you feel more natural.
3. Find a point of focus
When people start speaking they are often trying to look all over their computer screen or at everyone in the room. This can heighten your nerves because your eye is trying to take in too much information. To help calm yourself down, I recommend finding one person to talk to. Think about putting them at ease with this next bit of information. Then, direct your attention somewhere else with your next piece of content. Finding a point of focus can help you slow down and make your speech feel more like an intimate conversation.
Nerves can surprise us, so it’s useful to have a few tools to rely on to help calm yourself down. Thinking of your first word as a sigh, moving your body, and finding a point of focus will help you feel that this presentation is more like a conversation. The more conversational you feel, the more at ease you will be.
It happens to the best of us. You start to answer a question and then find yourself going on too many tangents and aren’t sure how to recover — you’re rambling. The issue with rambling is that it’s hard for your audience to follow your train of thought and figure out what your core message is. It takes effort for listeners to stay alert to the twists and turns in your story.
Therefore, if you are rambling in an interview or in a meeting, when you find yourself thinking, Where am I going with this? it’s important to know how to wrap up your thoughts and come to a clear conclusion. It’s that core message, or the phrase that you want people to recall, that you need to be direct about. Thankfully, that’s all you have to practice — ending with that take-home sentence that you want people to remember.
Unfortunately, instead of ending with a direct message, most people get embarrassed and end their answer with a trail-off phrase such as, “So ya…”. Or, they just end with a small detail about a story that has nothing to do with the question. Instead, practice ending with the sentence you want people to recall.
Let’s pretend you’re asked in an interview, “What is your greatest strength?” If you find yourself giving a long-winded answer, instead of trailing off, I’d bring it back to the original question and say something along the lines of, “And that’s why I think collaboration is one of my greatest strengths.” That way, if your answer was slightly disjointed, you still ended with the message that you want the interviewer to remember — that you are a great collaborator.
It takes some practice, but this technique can be used in all types of settings. If you’re in a meeting, talking about a project update, and you find yourself describing insignificant details, instead of ending with, “I know that was a lot of information,” I’d end with, “That’s why I believe we are on track with the latest design.” That way, even if the team got confused by some of the information you provided, there won’t be any questions on the current state of the project.
If you find yourself rambling, just take a breath, think about your core message and end your answer with that sentence. It’s a simple yet effective tool to help you and your audience communicate.
More and more people are having to pre-record their presentations for events. But it can be overwhelming to speak to a camera, alone in your room, and make it feel like you’re delivering the speech at an event with over 500 attendees. In pre-recorded talks, presenters often tense up, sound monotone, or rush through their content.
Here are 3 techniques to help you feel more relaxed and natural when you are recording a talk:
1. Talk to someone
It’s difficult to give a talk to people if there aren’t any people around. That’s why so many presenters feel awkward giving a speech to a camera. Thankfully, there is one situation where we do feel comfortable talking to someone even when they aren’t in the same room — when we’re on the phone. During a phone conversation with a friend, you aren’t able to see their face, but since you know them, you can imagine their reactions to the content you’re describing. Therefore if you’re going to record a talk, simply decide who is listening to you at that moment. Add energy and emphasis to certain points. Another option is to put a picture of a friend at the same level as your camera and talk to the picture. If you have a clear idea of who is listening to your information, you are far more likely to let your personality show and give an engaging talk.
2. Move so you don’t stiffen up
There’s a tendency for people to stiffen up when they are recording a talk. Their arms stay down, they don’t move their face as much, and they start holding their breath. The pressure of “being recorded” takes over and people tense up, causing them to lose a lot of their natural personality and energy. To help overcome this, before you record, wake up your body by jumping around, twisting your torso, or even having a quick dance session. If you stand up during the recording, it can also help you feel more supported and energized. Then, when you start your introduction, move your head and have access to your hands. Move your body like you would if you were having a live conversation. This will help you look more natural, which makes it easier for your audience to connect to you and your ideas.
3. Remember to have rest moments
In live conversations and presentations there are moments when, after a speaker makes a key point, they will pause and check in with their audience to make sure that information was received. This pause allows the audience a moment to reflect and absorb the information before the speaker moves on to the next point. However, in recorded talks speakers often speed through the content since they don’t have anyone to check in with. Therefore, to make your presentation feel more conversational, think about your key points and place pauses around them. It will make a pre-recorded talk feel more lively and personal.
If you decide who you are speaking to, stay relaxed by moving your body when you’re talking, and remember to pause so certain points stand out, you can help your pre-recorded talk feel like you’re giving a live presentation.
The words and phrases people use in presentations are incredibly important. As a presenter (whether it’s online or in-person) you want to create a strong connection with your audience. However, I’ve seen many presenters use certain phrases that, while common, can actually create a divide between the speaker and their audience. Here are three suggestions to keep in mind:
1. Change “As I’ve said before” to “Since”
“As I’ve said before” can sometimes come off as patronizing. It suggests that the listener should’ve been paying better attention. By switching this phrase with “Since”, it helps remind the listener of previous information, but in a supportive and conversational way.
2. Change “As you can see” to “We saw”
What if the audience can’t see what you’re saying? Perhaps their screen is too small. Or, maybe the image you’re pointing out is complex and the information you’re describing doesn’t immediately stand out. When presenters use this phrase, if the audience can’t easily “see” what you’re saying, then they will think, “No, I can’t”. This can disconnect the speaker from their audience. Instead, change the phrase to “We saw”. Then a listener can think, “Oh, I didn’t notice that, great to know.” Or, they may think, “Yes, I see that too.” By simply switching a few words, you can keep the audience on your side.
3. Change “For those of you who don’t know” to “It’s been shown”
This phrase highlights a knowledge gap between the presenter and their audience. By switching the phrase to “It’s been shown”, you keep everyone in the conversation. If they did know the information previously, they will think, “Yes, I knew that.” If they didn’t know it before they will think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” By switching up this phrase, you can bring people together no matter what knowledge they walk into the presentation with.
By changing a few simple phrases, you can be a more effective speaker and create a stronger connection with your audience.
Many people start their presentations by asking a question. They believe it is an effective way to engage their audience. While I understand the reason behind asking a question, I’ve also seen this tactic go very wrong. Here are three things to consider before asking a question in your presentation:
1. What if you get an answer you don’t want?
I once went to a talk where the speaker started by asking, “How many people have ever heard of “x” subject before?” Everyone in the room raised their hand. Then, she continued by saying, “Oh, well let’s pretend you haven’t” and then gave a 40 minute talk. This speaker had probably been told that opening a talk with a question is a great way to start. However, it is critical to realize that you may get a response that you don’t want. If a response to your question could unravel your talk, I wouldn’t ask it.
2. Is this rhetorical?
It’s very common for people to ask rhetorical questions in their talks. For example, I often hear people say, “Why did we do this?” and then immediately proceed to answer their own question. While there isn’t anything wrong with this, it’s important to note that your audience will start expecting you to answer your own questions. Then after your talk, if you ask them a question, you might not get anyone to speak up. That’s because you’ve set up an expectation that you will be asking rhetorical questions. Instead, rephrase your question into a statement like, “We did this because...” It’s a much more direct transition into the next part of your talk.
3. Do you need the answer?
I’ve been to many talks where the speaker asks a question, but doesn’t actually need the information. An audience can tell when you are just asking a question for the sake of asking it, versus asking a question and appreciating the response. This is why I recommend only asking a question if you need and value the information the answer can give you.
If you ask a question in a presentation, make sure the information you receive is critical and necessary. Otherwise, rephrase your questions as statements. It will help elevate the quality of your talk.
Using filler words can become a habit. That’s because the more your ear hears these filler sounds (um, uh, like, so), the more often you repeat them. After listening to hundreds of presentations, I’ve noticed a pattern of when filler words are used. If you can focus on these moments, you can cut down on the majority of the filler words in your presentation.
When people begin a presentation, they often don’t know exactly how to start. They know the first subject they will bring up, but they haven’t practiced how they will thank the person who introduced them or how they will quiet down the room. By not having a clear idea about how they want to begin, filler words start to appear. Fillers are used to give the presenter time to figure out what to say. To avoid this, practice a few introductions — and most importantly — practice them without filler words. That way, your ear won’t hear filler words in the beginning, and therefore, won’t rely on using them throughout the rest of the presentation.
2. Point of Focus
Filler words also emerge when a presenter isn’t sure where to look. In the virtual presentation world, this often happens when a presenter is trying to navigate from their presentation screen to answer a question in the chat box. They are trying to figure out a point of focus, and during that time, filler words pop out. When presenting in person, fillers slip out when the presenter is turning their head from the audience back to the screen with their PowerPoint, and vice versa. Presenters rely on filler words to fill the “time” that it takes to find a new place to look. To give yourself something else to do when refocusing, try exhaling. That way, you get a moment to breathe and your message won’t be distilled with filler sounds.
Filler words are also heard when people are transitioning from one idea to the next. People use sound to fill the pause of moving from one idea to another. It's a crutch presenters lean on to subconsciously tell the audience, “Don’t worry, I’m still in control.” Instead, try pausing between ideas. Pauses are incredibly useful. If there is a constant stream of noise, nothing will stand out. That’s why you want to practice pausing between ideas. This way, your ideas won’t blend into one another, you cut down on filler words, and your presentation becomes much more engaging.
It’s a good idea to practice key moments without fillers. This includes the introduction, pausing between points of focus, and between transitions. If you do this, your audience can focus on what’s really important — your content and ideas.
Data is important. Unfortunately, data presentations are often hard for audiences because after looking at a few graphs, details start to blur together and it is hard to recall specifics. However, there is a powerful technique you can rely on to make your data presentations more impactful — tell the backstory.
People love backstories. They love to find out what happened behind the scenes. It’s exciting to get to see the secret behind the final product. This can include the journey, what hurdles you had to overcome, the people involved, etc.
To be clear, a long backstory behind every graph is not a good idea. People don’t want to sit through a long presentation if they don’t have to. The trick is to adjust how to introduce your graph that adds in a few specifics to make the data real, to tell the story about why you are presenting it.
For example, instead of saying, “This graph shows…”
You could say:
“I remember reading an article that got me thinking about x and y so we decided to investigate those numbers. We discovered that...”
“We were in a meeting when Kyle originally had the idea to run an experiment comparing the specifics of x and y. After looking at that data, we noticed that…” or
“When I first saw this graph, what piqued my interest was how…”
By simply adding in a few sentences that introduce a location, person, or feeling, it makes the details more impactful and therefore, easier to remember.
Next time you present data, think about what happened that caused you to seek out that information in the first place.
Virtual presentations are the new normal. However, many presenters are having a hard time adjusting to this format. It’s easy to miss the in-person connection that comes from being in the same room as your audience. If you are giving a virtual presentation soon, keep these tips in mind:
Most presentations are done while standing. If standing is how you’ve given most of your presentations in the past, I’d suggest doing the same while presenting from home. Just put your computer on some books (so the camera is still at eye level), and give your presentation standing up. Not only will you feel more comfortable, but it will also help give you more vocal power since you won’t be hunched over.
2. Don’t Instantly Share Your Screen
Most presenters start their virtual presentations by sharing their screen right away. Unfortunately, if you start this way, the audience never has an opportunity to connect with you, since the video image of your face becomes a very small box on the side of the computer. Instead, I recommend only sharing your screen after you’ve introduced yourself. Let people see your face first. Let them have that moment of connection. Then, once you’ve said hello, you can start to share the main content of your talk.
3. Talk to a Person
Presentations are an opportunity to talk to people. However, during virtual presentations, most participants turn off their cameras in order to lower the bandwidth on the call. This can make it very hard for speakers to connect to their audience since they have no one to look at and talk to. I recommend asking a few people to leave their videos on so that you have someone to look at during the presentation. If that’s not possible, post a picture of someone you enjoy talking to behind your camera. That way, you have a real person to look at while giving your presentation.
Especially in the virtual world, it’s important to take every opportunity that makes it easier for your audience to connect to you during a presentation.
Many people hate small talk. They’d rather engage in “meaningful" conversation. However, if you think about it, small talk can be quite meaningful. It allows people a safe environment to find common interests, engage with people they don’t know well, and connect with others outside their immediate bubble.
If you aren’t sure how to begin a new conversation, try categorizing small talk into these three categories:
1. Personal — plans, ideas for activities, things to watch, etc.
"Any plans for the holidays?"
"I love exploring the outdoors. Do you have any recommendations on places to visit?"
"I've been watching this great new show _______. Have you seen it?"
2. Professional -- work, research, news articles, etc.
"What do you do?"
"I've been working on this project lately where _______. What are you working on right now?"
"Did you read that article on _______? I found it interesting how _______."
3. Location and environment — things in the area, events, the weather, etc.
"Have you been to any farmer's markets around here?"
"I heard there is a fair coming into town. Have you been before?"
"I love this time of year when it gets a little colder. Do you have a favorite winter activity?"
Now once you start a conversation, the trick is to keep the dialogue going. If someone isn't familiar with the idea you bring up, don't just answer "yes" or "no" and leave it there. Instead, find a way to continue talking until you find common ground.
"Did you watch the baseball game last night?"
"No, I didn't see it. I was busy testing out a new risotto recipe. Do you enjoy cooking?"
It takes a while for people to feel safe enough to open up. Small talk can be an incredible tool to use. You never know who you will meet and where that one interaction can lead.
Conferences are a great way to share your work, meet new people, and hear about the latest updates in your field. In order for everything to run smoothly, everything is delicately scheduled. And yet, most presenters forget this. They think about how to stand out among the other speakers, but there is one factor that can easily overshadow their presentation. That powerful element: time.
1. Presentation Schedule
If your speech is the one before a restroom break or before a meal, end on time. Even if the presenters before you took too long, find a way to condense your presentation. Always have a backup plan ready. People have a schedule in front of them. Once the clock gets to a certain point, no one will be listening to you. Shorten a few slides and end on time. The audience, and the conference coordinators, will thank you.
2. Too Much Content
An audience can always tell when a speaker puts too much content into a presentation. It’s either too complicated for the time allotted, or the speaker speeds up the delivery to get through all their slides. You want your audience to know that you crafted this presentation for them. That you thought about the best way to present this information in this specific time frame. By editing your content, you allow the audience time to think about and absorb your ideas.
3. Being "Almost Done"
Even the best presenters fall into the trap of saying phrases like:
“Just to conclude…”
“To go through this quickly…”
“To wrap up…”
While the phrases themselves aren’t bad, they are if you say them when you have more than 2-3 slides left. Don’t tell the audience you are almost done, if you aren’t. It makes them question you, and therefore the information in your presentation. Instead, just explain your ideas. If you don’t bring it up, people won’t be thinking about it.
Time can easily dominate a presentation. With a little preparation, you can take back that power. You want your audience to focus on what’s most important — you and your ideas.
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.