You straighten out your shirt, get a sip of water, take a deep breath and try to calm your shaky hands. The program coordinator introduces you, and it's show time. You stand up and try to start but no words come out. Then you wake up.
Most of us have experienced this performance-related nightmare or something like it. In high school or college, it was centered around tests or studying. After that, nightmares about giving a presentation to a client or something similar can -- at worst -- wake us up at night or make it hard for us to fall asleep.
Unfortunately for many business professionals, giving a presentation can feel like a nightmare and cause anxiety and stress. Among employed professionals, more than one in five said that they would do anything to avoid giving a presentation, even faking an illness, according a study by Prezi, a presentation platform.
Even if fear of speaking isn't an issue, you may feel that you don't really know how to give a great presentation. In the survey, 70 percent of participants said that presentation skills are critical to career success. If you fall into either category -- avoiding presentations like the plague or feeling like your communication skills could be improved -- here are 10 ways you can improve.
1. Get the ball rolling. We all get nervous at the beginning, but as you get into the meat of your presentation, you'll feel better. Remember that next time you start out. The jitters should only last a few minutes.
2. Establish rapport. If it's appropriate for the topic and purpose of your speech, ask an audience participation question as soon as possible. For example, "What brought you here?" "What piqued your interest about this topic?" "What are you wanting to learn?" If asking a question isn't appropriate, tell a joke early on to relax the room. It will relax you as well. Test out your joke on friends first to be sure it will go over well.
3. Speak on a topic you enjoy. Choose a topic you like and feel confident about. Your enthusiasm will show. The content will roll off your tongue and be easier for you. And your enthusiasm will be infectious with the audience. Don't force yourself to speak on something you don't know much about, or worse, aren't interested in. If you have to talk about something you don't love, try to find a different perspective to make it more appealing. Help bring it alive for you and your audience by using catchy metaphors, including images in your PowerPoint and telling stories to illustrate your points.
4. Leverage the energy you have. Use the energy that's making you nervous and channel that into enthusiasm about your speech. It works. I always listen to a favorite song that pumps me up and makes me feel confident before I start presenting.
5. Walk around the room and introduce yourself. I always do this. You'll feel like you know your audience already and feel connected to them, so it's less like a room of strangers.
6. Get to know your guests. Make a mental note of those you felt a stronger connection to and make eye contact with them during your speech. Call on them if it's interactive. Remember their names, repeating them to yourself right before you get started so you can remember to call on them.
7. Adjust to the location. Where do you want to stand or sit? How do you envision yourself presenting this particular topic? Will you walk around the room? Will you stand behind the podium? Or will you sit on a stool? Depending on what's available, adjust. And also, depending on the formality of the topic and setting, decide the best way to deliver your speech and where to stand in the room.
8. Speak deliberately. Too many people get nervous, then race through their presentation. Pace yourself. Pretend like you're talking to someone who doesn't understand your topic at all, even if they already have a sense of it. This will help you slow down and be more deliberate with each sentence. Imagine that each point you're making is very important. This will help you be deliberate and keep the correct pace. With the most important items, speak even slower. Increase your volume or decrease it, and use your tone to illustrate that it's an important point. Say, "This is a very important point. I want you to remember this." And repeat the point for emphasis. Also pay attention to how you typically speak during a presentation. Do you tend to read everything in a monotone? Does your voice sound breathy when you are nervous? Do you speak loud enough for everyone in the room to hear you? Do you feel comfortable pausing after revealing the most important thought of your presentation? Practice it aloud with several friends. If you know how to use your voice correctly, it makes your presentation much more powerful because you will have the attention of everyone in the room. Avoid using "um," "well" and other vocal crutches.
9. Don't pretend to know everything. It's fine to admit that you don't know the answer to a question. You can offer to research it and get back to the questioner. It doesn't do any good to pretend to know something you don't. The audience will respect you more if you're honest.
10. Use an outline. So, you've done a lot of research on your presentation and have all the facts. Instead of writing down your presentation word for word, and risk feeling flustered when you lose your place, use an outline. An outline is based on the main points of your presentation. Arrange supporting thoughts in a logical order. Be realistic with the amount of material you prepare. Keep in mind that the fewer main points you choose, the more likely it is that your audience will remember them.
Hallie Crawford is a certified career coach, speaker and author from Atlanta whose coaching company, HallieCrawford.com, helps people identify their ideal career path, navigate their career transition and nurture their careers. Her team of coaches works with people of all ages, has clients worldwide and has helped thousands of people achieve their career goals. She is also regularly featured as a career expert in the media, including CNN, Fox Business News, The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger and Forbes.com.
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