How to Give a Killer Presentation, According to a Former Diplomat
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
Let's say you're gearing up to make your pitch at a potential client's office, a trade show, or even on Shark Tank.
Just a moment ago, you were fine.
Now, your legs are shaking, you can't quite get enough air, and your heart is pounding in your ears. Your ability to manage this case of jitters can make or break your performance.
What's happening is your body preparing itself to respond to danger. According to The American Institute of Stress, physical signs of your fight-or-flight mechanism kicking in include increased heart-rate and breathing, pale or flushed skin, and trembling.
Most people feel some level of physical reaction related to speaking in front of a group. These responses are our primal instincts responding as if the audience were lions and tigers that might attack us.
For some, the jolt is just enough adrenaline to sharpen the senses and create extra energy — which helps them perform better. For others, anxiety around giving marketing and sales pitches can be debilitating.
If your jitters (or fear of jitters) causes you to turn down pitching opportunities, you may be losing out on potential clients, inhibiting your career growth, or hurting your bottom line. Plus, if do you take those stress-inducing pitch opportunities, it will feel considerably better when you can manage your physical responses. That requires preparation, confidence building, and breathing.
As someone with plenty of experience public speaking as a former diplomat and a public speaking coach, I've curated a few tips you can use to excel at your next presentation without letting fear hold you back.
1. Prepare, practice, and bring notes.
I have found nothing so far that eases public speaking stress more than solid preparation and practice. Once you know what you want to say, you have to practice. Stand up and say it out loud. Say it into a mirror, make a video on your phone, and even practice in front of friends and family.
Additionally, it's important you create notes to use in your pitch. Even if you don't feel you will need them, just having notes on-hand makes you feel like you have a safety net. Tighten your notes to as few words as possible — if at all possible, I'd suggest bullet points. Use a big font, number the pages, and staple them together so they can't get out of order. The better prepared you are ahead of an event, the better you will feel when the time comes.
2. Build your confidence through posture and visualization.
Next, it's time to build your fortitude. What makes you feel like you have the strength to overcome a challenge? The fight song from your alma mater? Motivational quotes? I like to envision a parade where everyone is cheering for me as I walk into my event.
Another way to build confidence is power posing. Taking an expansive stance ahead of an event allows our body to send messages of strength and confidence to our brains. Power posing for just two minutes before a pitch can give you a psychological boost that will help reduce your nervous responses.
Finally, visualize success! Envisioning the positive — rather than imagining all the things that might go wrong — can have a transformational impact on the outcome.
3. Take deep breaths.
If your pulse is racing, you have lost your train of thought, and your symptoms are having their way with your smooth exterior, you have to increase oxygen flow to your brain. The quick, shallow breathing that goes with public speaking nerves is working against you. Ahead of your event, it's critical you try a few breathing exercises (like 4-7-8 breathing).
During your pitch, slowing down enough to take a deep breath from your abdomen, rather than your shoulders, can make a difference. Taking this long breath can look to your target customers like a thoughtful moment and can give you the resources you need to get back in the flow.
It's Go Time
The best thing you can do to help yourself overcome public speaking nerves that threaten to hold you back is to have a plan. Most marketers have some kind of physical reaction to speaking in public. Keep in mind that your audience wants you to succeed — even if for no other reason than because it is uncomfortable to watch someone who is outwardly nervous.
Preparation, confidence building, and breathing can empower you to fight those self-conjured lions and tigers. Next time the chance comes to tell your boss you will step up for the big pitch or secure a thought leadership public speaking opportunity to build your brand, take it. You've got the tools. Put them to work for yourself and your bottom line — trust me, it's worth it.
Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach and former diplomat. She helps business executives deliver their message through public speaking, executive presence, and body language.