The Seven Thinking Sins of Public Speaking

In the previous post in this series There’s no such thing as a perfect presentation, I looked at how to analyse your thinking and change “musts” or demands” into “goals” and so reduce the pressure you put on yourself.

Over the years we’ve worked with hundreds of people to help them reduce their nervousness. So we’re familiar with the common thinking patterns that people have around presenting. Here are the Top Seven Thinking Sins that contribute to the fear of public speaking.

1. My presentation must go perfectly

Truth: There is no such thing as a perfect presentation. And neither is it a laudable goal. Audiences prefer authentic to polished, they prefer conversational to slick. It’s normal to stumble over a word or forget for a moment what you want to say next. Your audience will forgive you.

Solution: Your goal is to forge a connection with your audience. Focus on that, not the perfection of your speech. Accept that you’ll make some mistakes – that’s human.

2. I must be interesting and engaging

Truth: It’s a tall order to say that you must be interesting and engaging at all times. Sometimes people in an audience do drift off into their own thoughts for a moment. Or maybe they’re exhanusted from being up all night with a teething baby. It’s not about you.

Solution: Your goal is to be interesting and engaging. Focus on the people in the audience who are connecting with you – they are energy chargers. The people who aren’t paying attention to you are energy suckers. Looking at them will demoralize you and your energy will drop. Or you’ll get so obsessed in trying to get their attention that you’ll become too zany.

3. I must not forget anything

Truth: You’re the only one that knows exactly what you’re going to say. Your audience probably won’t even notice.

Solution: Your goal is to remember to say the key points in your presentation. Have notes and take the time to look at them. If you know that you find looking at notes difficult in a presentation, practice. Practice with people in front of you. Here’s how to look at your notes. Stop talking, look at your notes, know what you’re going to say next, look up, find someone to talk to – look at them and start talking.

If it’s really important put it in a handout. That way it’s not a disaster if you forget a key point.

4. I must know more about the topic than anyone in the audience

Truth: No you don’t. This is a recipe for over-researching and stress. There will often be people in the audience who are more knowledgeable in the audience than you.

Solution: Your job as a presenter is not to know more than anyone else, but to communicate and explain what you do know with your own perspective. See this post on presenting with experts in the audience for more ideas.

5. I must be able to answer every question

Truth: Oh-oh! More over-researching and stress. You’re not expected to know the answer to every question that an audience member might ask.

Solution: Become comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” We’re trained from a young age to automatically answer questions and it can be very difficult to say “I dont know.” In your rehearsals, have colleagues pepper you with questions and practice not answering the question. Experiment with different ways of saying “I don’t know”. Expert witnesses in court cases will often say: “That’s outside the scope of my expertise.”

What about questions you should know the answer to. But that knowledge deserts you when you need it most. Think through how you’ll handle this. For example, you could say in a self-deprecating way “I should know the answer to that – but it’s not coming to mind right now – I’ll get back to you as soon as my memory returns!”

6. I must not show any sign of nerves

Truth: Just about everybody can relate to having some nervousness about public speaking – so most people in your audience will feel empathy. As long as you have done your preparation and have useful well-organised content that meets their needs, they will forgive your nervousness.

And it may be that your nervousness doesn’t even show. You can feel your heart about to beat out of your chest and you can feel the sweat trickling down your sides. The audience can’t.

Solution: Accept that you will have some nervousness and that it may show. That is not the end of the world. You can still deliver your presentation. Many very experienced presenters and other professional performers (actors, singers) get nervous. They still go out there and perform. Being nervous is part and parcel of presenting and public speaking. Experienced presenters have learnt how to manage their nerves. You can learn to manage your nerves by using the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy.

6. It will be a disaster if I can’t get the datashow to work

Truth: No it won’t. Speeches and presentations can exist without visuals. We’re often told stories of conferences when the technology stopped working and the presentation without Powerpoint was the best presentation of the conference.

Solution: Take reasonable steps to ensure that the technology will work. Arrive in plenty of time to set everything up. Have your slideshow on a flash drive so you can use someone else’s laptop if necessary. Don’t store your flash drive in your laptop bag. That way if your laptop bag gets stolen, you’ll still have your flash drive.

If your slides are absolutely essential to your presentation (eg: screenshots of the software you’re demonstrating) print out a hard copy, so that you can distribute them as handouts for your audience to look at during your presentation.

If you can’t use slides at all, think through how you’ll deliver your presentation without them – flipchart, whiteboard, nothing? It’s quite possible to deliver a presentation without visuals.

7. My mind will go blank, I’ll go red and I’ll die of humiliation

Truth: You can handle this – you’ve probably handled far worse things in your life and you won’t die. Mind blanks can happen in the stress of a presentation.

Solution: Accept that it’s possible that a mind blank might happen and prepare for it. Have a set of notes that you can refer to, or arrange for a colleague in the audience to prompt you from a script.

Rehearse dealing with a mind blank. Do this in front of 1 or 2 friends. Start delivering your presentation, then pretend that your mind has gone blank. Stop, look down at your notes, take a breath, find where you are and what you want to say next, look up again and find someone to talk to – and start speaking again.

Get feedback from your friends on how long it took, and how it looked. To you it may well feel like an age, but it was probably just a few seconds. And your audience can see what you were doing and will be quite happy to wait till you are ready again. Practice this routine several times until it becomes a comfortable habit. Now if it does happen in a presentation, you’ll have your Plan B ready for action.

Paradoxically, because you’re now prepared for a mind blank and know that you can deal with it, it’s less likely to happen.

Conclusion

None of the things that you think at the time are disasters, truly are disasters. Stuff happens in presentations. Mentally accept that stuff happens and mentally prepare for when stuff happens. If you’ve got a “thinking sin” that I haven’t discussed here, that you’d like some help with, post it in the comments. I’ll reply with some ideas.

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