Chapter OneFear Is a Good Thing-It Will Help You Become a Great Presenter
What You Will Learn From This Chapter:
It is healthy and reasonable to be fearful of your upcoming presentation.
The reasons why your fears are well founded.
How to use your fears to create a great presentation.
It's going to be okay! I know you are nervous about your next presentation, and that is understandable. I also say it's good. Being nervous will give you the energy you need to create a vibrant talk and then deliver it to your audience with power and confidence. The fact that your upcoming presentation is giving you a case of the willies is a good sign. It shows you care. It shows you want to be good, and improve. Please don't wish for the jitters to go away! Accomplished speakers, like athletes and entertainers, recognize that sense of discomfort is a tool to help them focus, prepare thoroughly, and perform well. The physiological distress signals your body sends out to stop you from taking the podium-sweaty palms (as well as upper lips, foreheads, and underarms), constricted throat, butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath-come from realistic fears. Good. In fact, as my kids say, "It's all good."
Your body is telling you, "You're in for a fight." Get ready. This anxiety can be channeled to help you heighten your senses, intellect, creativity, and drive. Deliver a powerful performance, receive encouragement and insightful questions from the audience, and you've jumped a major hurdle: You've kicked a little tail on those presentation fears.
I don't want to talk you out of your fear. I'm not going to tell you not to worry about your next presentation. Your anxiety shows me you're perceptive, not paranoid. You understand that when you stand in front of an audience, every single face hides a fair-weather fan. You can get those in the audience to become fans and cheer for you, your ideas, and your proposals. All you have to do is create a strong connection with every one of them, no matter how big the room is. You can do it, and understanding and accepting your fear is the first step. The worst presenters, I believe, are the ones with no fear, no sweat. They think they're already pretty good and don't care about improving the impact of their presentation on the audience.
The comic dying onstage always says, "Wow, tough crowd." I say they're all tough. From the PTA parents in cafeterias to the corporate "C-levels" (MBA marketing lingo for CEOs, COOs, CIOs, and CFOs) in mahogany conference rooms, to the colleagues you hang out with every day in the coffee room, every audience is demanding. They expect the speaker to be good, even if you're their "bud," "sister," "bro," or the only one in the office they can talk to about the suspense behind last night's eviction ceremony on Big Brother Five.
Audiences don't like being disappointed. They will quickly turn on any speaker who's not building a connection. Therefore, the task ahead is easy. When the spotlight is on you, never let the audience down and you'll be golden. It's a good goal-one you can reach.
I can say, after years of sitting in them and talking to them, that audiences are not unfair. But they are quick to judge. Once you understand how to connect with the audience members, you'll find you can please them every time. Audiences will keep buying what you're selling as long as they think they want and need your ideas, your insights, and your thoughts. They are the ultimate conspicuous consumers, right out of Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (wow, Dad, five years of college wasn't down the drain!). They will cheer you and keep buying your thoughts as long as you please them. Keep pleasing them, and you'll keep the boo birds at bay, forever.
That's a good ambition because a disparaging audience won't actually boo you to your face if you bore them. Boos might be more helpful than what really happens because instead, they'll do worse. They will cruelly mock you behind your back if you fail to connect with them. For the next fifteen to thirty minutes, they want you to rock their world. And they expect you to know how to do it. After all, there you are, in front of everybody, commanding all the attention.
So your fears are well placed. I guarantee they will not "love you for just being you," as your mom told you while wiping away your tears on the way to the first day at a new elementary school. The audience is filled with professional adults who will only "love you" if you connect with them, inform them, and help them. Follow the right steps and you can do all three every time. If you're a week away from the presentation and your palms are starting to sweat, know that you're in good company. Everyone who has to stand in front of others, in the figurative spotlight, begins with these same fears. Those who succeed will embrace the fears, akin to that famous Hollywood stereotype: the vacant, unemployed blond-haired surfer assessing ferocious fifteen-foot swells that crest and violently pound the shore. The tanned and seemingly inarticulate surfer gazes intently at the threatening horizon and says directly to the waves, "Come on, dude, let's party!"
That's how confident and successful speakers feel, imagining the faces in the audience they'll be standing in front of in an hour or a week. The real pros fully understand this is treacherous professional territory. They understand it can cause embarrassment and pain, and might even "leave a mark" on their careers as well as their psyches. They also know fear creates realizations that will enable them to perform well, navigate the punishing environment, and bring them a rewarding and exhilarating experience that our character out of Malibu central casting would describe as "totally righteous."
Your fear is good. No one should talk you out of it. And they'll try. Heavens yes, they'll stick their noses right in the middle of your fears. Who hasn't experienced that surreal scene that could have come out of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, or The Brady Bunch? Here's how it goes in case you haven't had the pleasure:
You're going over your notes at your desk. You're feeling tense because your presentation is tomorrow. Enter the foreverpatronizing Mike Brady character (Mike being the natural father of Greg, Bobby, and Peter) in your life. With a gentle wave of the hand and head tilted in full condescension mode, he says, "I know you're nervous. But here's a little trick that always works. Just pretend everyone in the audience is in their underwear and you'll be fine." As my daughter says, "Eeeoow! Gross!"
How is this underwear thing supposed to help? It's cruel. Well intentioned, but cruel nonetheless. It may be disturbing and even slightly sickening to envision your peers, your customers, your bosses in matching sets of Hanes, but it's not calming to a jumpy speaker. Only in the bizarre alternative universe of sitcoms does the "underwear" advice assuage the dread of the next presentation, transforming an anxious frown into a smile of earnest enthusiasm and confidence. That probably didn't help you in high school and it's not going to help you now. "They" are wrong. There is something to fret about. And it's real! I want to take a look at your biggest fears, show you why they aren't imagined, and prove that is the first step to overcome in your meaningful and connecting presentation.
It's worth the effort. You may never bring yourself to say, "Come on, dude, let's party," as you step to the podium, but you'll be more confident at the front of the room as you open you mouth to speak.
Presentation Fear #1: The Audience Will Judge Me Because I'm Taking Up Their Valuable Time
You're right. They will. Take their time and you're taking something from them they'll never get back. That's why audiences are brutal. It's not that audiences set out to be unkind. Bad speakers force the harsh judgments, barely stifled anger, unpleasant thoughts, and lack of compassion a disgruntled audience tends to spit out. I don't have sympathy for a speaker who is professionally "falling and can't get up" during a failing presentation. I say the bad karma is well deserved. The speaker didn't prepare enough, one way or the other. Lousy presenters are thieves; they steal time.
Audiences are investing their most valuable asset in you.
They're giving you a chunk of their lives. And they expect return on that investment. They expect to be better off after giving you fifteen to thirty minutes of their time. Everybody expects to gain after spending something: money on that new top from Abercrombie & Fitch, that new ionic freshener from the Sharper Image (how many different models of ionic air fresheners are there anyway?), or their time listening to you. They want return on their money, their time, their investment. They don't expect a huge return. A few new ideas, something that will help them-delivered in a pleasant way-is all they ask. And so many times they get ripped off. No return on the investment, and even worse, the principal is gone. Thirty minutes of their life they will never get back. And there is no return policy.
On top of that, this all takes place in a closed conference room environment that is not an exercise in democracy. It's a dictatorship. For a short time, you're the omnipotent overlord of the room, whether or not you want to be. You're spewing forth information, and the audience members have no choice but to let it spill over them, and perhaps soak it in. Everyone accepts this premise. It's what a presentation scenario is. The audience members for your upcoming talk will accept it. You accept it when you're in the audience for the speaker who follows you. We all have learned to accept a dictator at the front of the room. We all will keep doing so as long at the rule is pleasing to us.
The core of a presentation tableau lies in the fact that for it to work, everyone in the room must stop conversing so you can talk. Not just for a minute or two, like cocktail party conversations, but for fifteen to thirty minutes. For that period, you're not only the center of your universe; you're the center of theirs. They're stuck listening to you, and the rules of social decency mandate they have to at least act like they're listening.
It's a false dictatorship, though, and here's the nerve-racking part. The speaker doesn't have the real power, the audience does. That's why your stomach churns more and more as the presentation looms ever closer. You are in danger of a riotous corporate rebellion in the mind of every audience member, from the moment you as the "pseudo-dictator" assume a very tenuous control of the room.
If you're engaging, helpful, and fun to listen to, audience members won't mind delivering their power to you. They'll know you're the boss. As long as you connect, the audience will suffer your false dictatorship gladly, not minding at all that you're doing all the talking. If they like the way you handle your power, they'll ask you to talk again soon. That's a clear indication that they've enjoyed your pseudo-authoritative rule, and that they want to experience it again. A happy, pleased audience tells you they're better off when you're talking and they're listening.
Even the question-and-answer period is autocratic. The speaker decides who to call on and who will respond. Once you stop connecting, you're not such a benevolent dictator. The audience will view you as abusive. They'll start to rebel. It will get ugly, quickly, and you may not even sense it until it is too late. They will think unkind thoughts, say unkind words afterward, and hope you never rise to power in the room again.
They'll even start to plot against you and your time-wasting efforts. A lackluster presentation or two and you'll realize you never really had any power when you stood at the podium. It's no fun when the rabble is rousing. Keep them connected and you can quell the mob into dutiful, pleasant submission. It's what the audience wants. It's what I think when I sit in an audience. I will gladly give my time and attention to a speaker who is enjoyable to listen to and who teaches me something.
The audience will judge you positively if you add to their day.
Presentation Fear #2: The Audience Members Will Not Listen to Me-They Have Been Burned by Other Speakers
This fear is about facing an audience filled with broken presentation hearts. We all have that bright and witty, yet bitter, caustic, and forlorn, friend who keeps experiencing miserable luck in romance. We're always saying that friend is, "really a sweet person down deep." Friends like this never go into a first date with giddy, joyful anticipation. Rather, they are jaded, sardonically expecting the worst. They tell you it will probably be a wretched time, and the only redeeming feature will be providing you with some laughs the next day about another jerk, another beast, or another loser. They always say they really just want romance and someone they can really talk to. Why the gloom?
The pessimism and sarcasm come from bad experiences. They've been misled, cheated on, and unceremoniously dumped, when all they've been is open, honest, accepting, and giving. They've been hurt.
That's exactly how audiences feel. They want great conference room experiences, but alas, they keep coming up professionally empty! They are quietly suspicious of every speaker who stands in front of them. They too have been hurt, misled, and burned (tear!) time and time again by speakers they'd hoped would be enriching, but instead turned out to be insincere and a waste of time. That's why they're suspicious of you, even though you're just now making your way to the mike and haven't even begun to talk.
I know that's how you and I feel when we are in the audience. "Will this be good, or lousy? Will this be a waste of my time? Oh, this won't be good, I just know it! I wish I was back in my office, doing work I really need to get done. Why did I agree to take this meeting?" Your judgments are unfair, but they come from your unfortunate experience, not unfounded insecurities.
Now the tables are turned. You know when you step to the front of the room; all those attentive and sometimes encouraging pairs of eyes mask caustic and ruthless snap-judgment mechanisms- the same kind you make. They're giving you a grade on everything you do. It's as if your critical first-quarter production or marketing presentation in the conference room is some type of freakish corporate Miss America pageant. Audiences never reward just a good effort or hard work. You have to win them over every time. They're ready to mentally record with a searing red marker your performance score in all kinds of categories and competitions from the moment you open your mouth until the moment you take your seat.
You know this all too well. You know the audience members can and will be mean and unforgiving, all the while politely clapping and facetiously chuckling at the lame humor coming from the speaker. You know about the forced smiles hiding clinched lips whispering the evaluation, "This guy is a moron." You know this because sometimes that smile and those unkind words have come from you. That's right. I'm alleging you've been a mean-spirited and unforgiving member yourself. I know I have been and I will continue to be. I argue that everyone, who's not a parent or child of the speaker, becomes grumpy at warp speed after just ten minutes of a lousy presentation.
This is all good! It's frightening, perhaps, but good. Realizing the audience is suspicious is the first step to winning and rewarding their confidence. Help them to trust again (another tear, this time of joy), and they'll clap enthusiastically and mean it. They'll be telling others at coffee the next day how professionally "hot" you are. Connect with the audience and you break the chain of presentation distrust and heartache.
Realization #2: The audience will forget they've been burned as soon as you give them a good experience.
Presentation Fear #3: The Audience Will Tune Me Out
If you make a connection with the audience, they will not tune you out. If you make good on the investment they're making in you, they will stick with you. It's the law (I just made up) of presentation macroeconomics: Audiences keep investing when they keep getting a return.