From Stage Fright to Stage Might

9 tips to keep in mind before your next foray into the presentation spotlight.

Would you believe that speaking in public is the No. 1 human fear of people, while death is No. 7? So at a funeral, would you rather be lying in the casket than delivering the eulogy? —Jerry Seinfeld

If you suffer from pre-training jitters, you’re in good company. Well-known people such as Elvis Presley, Ozzy Osbourne, Barbra Streisand, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Eleanor Roosevelt admitted to being nervous before stepping on stage. They knew, however, that some level of anxiety is natural— even beneficial. It gives the right pump of adrenaline to walk on stage with poise and confidence.

Here are some tips to keep in mind before your next foray into the presentation spotlight:

1. Know your audience. You’re speaking to your audience because you have a purpose and intended or expected goal. Therefore, it’s important to know who they are so you keep them tuned to “WII-FM” (What’s In It For Me?).

  • Who are they (i.e., peers, superiors, technical or non-technical, inside or outside your industry)?
  • What do they “need to know” for the outcome you expect?
  • Do they have any preconceived ideas you should address?
  • Will people challenge you? If so, which ones?
  • What questions might they have?
  • What’s your one key takeaway message?

2. Use presentation aids sparingly. If you think you need PowerPoints (or other presentation software), handouts, flip charts/white boards, or other aids to be engaging, try using some at your next dinner party.

Aids are to help your audience, not you. If your audience can get everything they need from aids, why do they need you there? Instead engage them: Ask questions. Give them something to do or think about. When you choose to use aids, use them sparingly to improve understanding, clarify, emphasize, or support recall or retention.

3. Engage your audience from the start. You have about 30 to 60 seconds to build credibility. Get your audience’s attention with an ice breaker: an individual or small group activity, rhetorical or thought-provoking question, shocking statistic or headline, what if, imagine that, pertinent quote, case study, captivating story, gripping photo, asking for a show of hands, etc.

4. Practice, then practice some more. One of the most common mistakes people make when speaking in public is speaking too fast. Record your presentation so you learn to speak at a conversational pace. Rehearse your presentation in front of people who are and aren’t familiar with you and your topic. Ask for feedback regarding content, visual aids, body language, and pace.

5. Bring notes. Many people we think of as stellar public speakers actually are reading from a teleprompter. If you don’t have that luxury, notes work well. Even former President Obama referred to notes when he presented a toast to Queen Elizabeth during a State Banquet in Buckingham Palace. Write large enough so you don’t have to squint, highlight critical points, and number the cards in case they get shuffled or out of order.

6. Use pauses to your advantage. Pauses and silent moments used effectively can elevate interest and impact. Most presenters are afraid to stop talking; they need to fill every second with the sound of their own voice. Pause to separate main segments, let something sink in, grab attention, build anticipation, add drama. Give your audience time to consider, laugh, or ask questions.

If you pause because you momentarily lost track of what you were saying, take a deep breath, find your place, and continue. Your audience probably will figure the pause was planned.

7. Avoid distractions. Learn all you can in advance about the room and the surroundings. Certain internal and external distractions are beyond your control, but take charge of what you can.

  • Don’t wear flashy/funky clothing or noisy jewelry.
  • Avoid nervous habits such as tapping your pen/ pencil, fiddling with your hair, crossing or uncrossing your legs, exaggerating hand gestures.
  • Don’t use JACOWs (jargon, acronyms, clichés, and overused words).
  • Format your visual aids consistently.
  • Suggest that people silence their cell phones and step outside if they need to take an important call.

8. Get in the zone. About 10 minutes before your talk, sip a glass of water. Breathe from your diaphragm. Visualize your success. Then walk on stage. Establish eye contact with your audience. Smile. Say, “Good morning, afternoon, or evening.” Slowly turn your head from left to center to right, and back again. This connects you with your audience and grounds you before starting. Take a deep breath, and as you do, imagine yourself inhaling the energy of the room. Slowly exhale and begin speaking.

9. Look them in the eyes and “listen.” Make eye contact with as many people as possible. If your audience is large, divide them into (mental) sections and focus on a member from each section. When shifting your focus from one area to another, don’t follow a pattern or you’ll appear unnatural.

Most presenters are afraid to stop talking, but pauses used effectively can elevate interest and impact. Give your audience time to consider, laugh, or ask questions.

While making eye contact, “listen” to your audience’s facial expressions and other body language. Are they nodding in agreement? What makes them smile? Are they attentive and sitting upright? Are they checking their phones? Are they looking around the room or chatting with neighbors? If you seem to have lost their interest, pull something from your bag of tricks: Tell a story, ask a question, make them laugh, create a transition, ask them to write or think about something, or take a micro-break to bring their focus back to you.

Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts has been a training professional for the last 25 years. She’s the author of 25 books, including “New Rules For Today’s Workplace,” “Speaking Your Way to Success,” Business “Writing for Dummies,” and several other Dummies books. She’s been quoted in The New York Times and other publications and has appeared on radio and television networks throughout the United States.