8 states of mind that will make you a more compelling presenter

I believe in the inside-out method of presenting.

Rather than thinking about what I’m doing on the outside eg: a specific gesture or movement, I choose what’s going on inside – my state of mind. My state of mind is the biggest influence on how I come across.

Different states of mind work for different people. So here’s a selection of states that may work for you. Experiment with them and see what works best for you.

If you’re nervous

1. Speak as if you’re in your seat

Do you find that you’re quite comfortable when you’re sitting down talking to people round the table, but as soon as you stand up, you become flustered?

Often, people ask me “Can’t I just present sitting down?”  Most of the time, standing up is best. Standing gives you credibility and authority.

But you can capture the state of mind that you have when you’re sitting down. That state of mind has you be natural and conversational.

Try this out with a couple of friends as your audience. Start your presentation sitting down. Once you feel in flow, stand up but continue speaking as if you were in your seat. The first time you try this you may lose your “sitting down” state of mind. Practice the transition from sitting to standing until you can stay in the same conversational mode. Get feedback from your friends on how it’s working. Notice how you’re feeling now as you “present” standing up – do you feel less flustered, more grounded and more engaged with your friends?

2. Throw yourself forward

Are you nervous at the beginning of your presentation, but once you’re a few minutes in, the nervousness disappears. Before you present next time, think of what you’ll be like once you’re in the flow of the presentation. Conjure up that feeling, visualise yourself presenting in flow – and now start your presentation.

3. I’m here to help you

Both Jerry Weissman (author of The Power Presenter) and Joey Asher (author of How to Win a Pitch) recommend you take the focus off yourself. When you’re presenting, your ego is at stake – and it’s very easy to be obsessed with ‘What will people think of me?” rather than what you can do for the people who are listening to you. Here’s Joey Asher:

Before your speech, say to yourself, “I’m going to go out there and help these people today.” I use that affirmation all the time when I’m nervous before a speech. It helps me a lot. My clients have found it helpful as well. The affirmation works by requiring a shift in attitude. When you say “I’m going to help these people,” you interrupt the selfish self-talk that accompanies the fear of public speaking.

Jerry Weissman says:

Shift the focus from yourself to your audience. This shift will not only reduce your anxiety, it will also heighten the effectiveness of your presentation or speech.

If you’d like to have more enthusiasm and passion

4. Animated dinner party conversation

Present as if you’re the centre of attention of an animated conversation at a dinner party. All the other conversations have died down ‘cos you’re on fire! Or as Joey Asher puts in his book How to Win a Pitch:

Imagine that you’re having dinner with your best friend. And imagine that you’re talking about something you’re really excited about. As you’re telling this story, chances are that you’re talking with a great deal of animation. You smile as you speak. Your eyes light up with excitement. Your voice rises up and down like a roller coaster.

This natural animation is far more compelling than staged and artificial gestures, or forced attempts to change the pitch of your voice.

5. Carefree

Are you in a careful state of mind when you present – do you want to get every word right, and make sure you don’t miss anything? You may get it right – but you’re unlikely to be engaging and enthusiastic.

Try on this state of mind: “Carefree”. Carefree is not the same as careless. Carefree is when you’ve put in the effort in the preparation phase and now that you’re in front of the audience, you can let go of the need to get it right. You’re happy to let a few minor mistakes go by. Instead of focusing on getting it right, you focus on engaging with your audience.

6. Your audience is eager for every word

It’s easy to feel discouraged about presenting if you think your audience is unlikely to be interested in your topic. But if you feel like that – you’re likely to telegraph it to your audience. Instead, imagine that your audience are graduate students who not only are deeply passionate about your topic but are about to be examined on it. They’ll be hanging on every word!

Yesterday I was presenting to a group of public sector accountants. It was the last session of the day at a conference on the latest developments in public sector accounting. I did have the odd moment of thinking – they’re not going to be interested in my session – they’re here for an in-depth discussion on accounting procedures. But I realized that that state of mind was not going to have me come across at my best. I turned it around to thinking – “After a whole day full of detailed sessions, they’ll love a visual and interactive session on a soft skill like presenting”. Much more useful to me… and true.

7. You’re the host/hostess at your party

I remember back to the first party I hosted as an adult. I was very nervous – would anyone turn up, would they talk to each other? But when people did start to dribble in, I knew it was my job to get them relaxed, have them feel welcome and introduce them to others. So I was bubbly and vivacious – and the mood spread. Taking on the state of mind of being a host or hostess of your party is a great way to help you come across as friendly, approachable and enthusiastic.

8. Be over the top

For some people, none of the above work. If you’ve been given feedback that you’re boring and monotonous when you present, here’s your assignment. Lock yourself into a room with a video camera. Then give your presentation to the video camera. First, be totally silly – like over-the-top silly. Now be dramatic, over-the-top dramatic. Now be totally passionate.

Now watch yourself back. Are you more interesting to listen to than you were before? Find a trusted friend and ask them their opinion. If you presented like that in real life, would it be appropriate and effective? Most of the time it is. Because you’re normally quite reserved, what feels totally over-the-top to you is likely to come across as moderate enthusiasm. So the state of mind you’re aiming for is “I’m being over-the-top!”. But you know from the video feedback and from your friend that that is just right for the audience.

What states of mind do you use when you’re presenting that work for you?

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  1. Olivia,

    Your Tip #3 is what turned things around for me. When I first began speaking — decades and decades ago — I was so nervous I would inadvertently speak in Spoonerisms. Which made the audience laugh. Which made me more nervous.

    I tried to counter my nervousness by memorizing my speech word for word, which made me wooden and even more nervous.

    Finally, the only effective speech teacher I ever came across made me focus on the audience. Instead of asking — in my head — “Am I making sense?” or “Am I speaking loud enough?” or “Am I boring?” I started looking people in the eye and asking — again, in m head — “Are you getting this?” or “Can you hear me?” or “Do you care about this?” It sounds silly, but it worked. (It still does.) I stopped being so self-preoccupied and, as a consequence, because less nervous.

    Connecting with the audience had the added benefit of winning them over. And I found that when they liked me, they overlooked my flaws and imperfections. And that, in turn, made me less nervous.

    I like all your other suggestions, too.

    • Thanks Chris for another insightful comment. Memorizing is definitely a trap that it’s easy to fall into when you’re starting out. I’ve had that experience of being totally inside my own head when I was presenting – the audience just being a vague blur in front of me. Olivia

  2. Tip #2 is what many of my students report as being what works for them – they report that after the first few minutes, their fear is no longer in their mind because they’re in the flow of their presentation.

    I personally like to set my intention ahead of time such that, and this may sound a little esoteric, separation is an illusion, and that speaking to my audience is the same as speaking to myself because everything is connected and it’s a fluke and accident of perception and language that makes us perceive “separation”.

    That makes me feel connected to my audience (after all, they’re “me”, so am I not already connected to… myself??) and that approach gives me a helpful and caring attitude, and wanting the best for them, as I would want for myself.

    David Portney

    • Hi David

      That’s profound – thank you for adding it. I can see that it’s a way of thinking that will help some people. Olivia

  3. I’ve practiced 3 – 5 and #7. So far, so good :-)

    However I remember the first presentation I ever gave to large audience… I wasn’t exactly nervous. (At least I don’t think I was). But then someone in the back of the room yelled out: “speak up!”

    It made me laugh a little. I took a deep breathe. Laughed. Clapped my hands, and said: “Ok. Here we go!” And at the end of the day the presentation rocked! At least according to the feedback I got from the audience.

    It wasn’t an over the top approach I took. At least I don’t think it was. It was more like ok, I’m here to help, let’s have some fun and rock it out for the next hour! Are you with me?!

    That’s the approach that I try to take. Then of course I sit and review my videos to critique myself and that’s a tough process but hey, I’m trying.

    • Wow Ricardo! That sounds fantastic – sounds like you loved having the energy of a large audience to feed off. You’ll get addicted to it! Go well with the next one. Olivia

  4. Your tips will also make a tweeter on twitter more personable.

    Back when we trained to deliver a presentation to a video camera, you had to look beyond the machine and imagine the people sitting there watching the presentation. You had to make them real. What a job.

    It really doesn’t matter if they are sitting out in front of you, or a screen It doesn’t matter if they are watching you, or reading you. You always come through the media that you use to present yourself.

    • Thanks David you make a great point of imagining your audience in front of you, even if they’re not. Olivia

  5. Olivia, lots of gold in this article.

    I like the idea of shifting the focus from yourself to the audience and thinking of yourself as a party host.

    If our focus is “I’m here to help these people,” we’ll be more personable, natural, and enthusiastic.

  6. im trying to be a good speaker, but i have problem with my nervous. How can I overcome it??

  7. Hey Olivia,
    Thank you so much for the very thoughtful and insightful articles!.. They are so helpful, practical, and very enjoyable to read! I have learned so much!
    And I am so loving the feeling that I feel that I am more capable to do public speaking. These articles are so inspiring and true! … We need to know that the audience also wants us to speak well, because they want us to help them as much as we want to help them… and in return, we help ourselves be a better speaker!
    I really love the rewarding feeling that I did my best, the audience enjoyed my presentation, the audience learned from me, and that I accomplished my goal to help both the audience and myself.
    That beautiful feeling comes in a package that is all good!
    That is why doing your best is a very remarkable and beautiful feeling anyone can afford to do in a passionate way!

  8. Thanks for the great suggestions! I’m still unsure whether notes are a good or bad thing to have handy on the podium, just in case. Anybody have some thoughts on this?


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