Best Foot Forward

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Rachael Oakes-Ash uncovers the secrets of overcoming the fear of public speaking and presenting.

The sweat is dripping down your back and your heart is beating loud and fast, your hands are shaking and knees feel week and pretty soon the nausea kicks in. It sounds like shock, looks like shock and feels like shock but for many this is the reality of public speaking.

If you work in business then at some stage you will have to present. It may be a birthday speech in the office kitchen, a pitch to your boss, a report to your work colleagues or it may be as a CEO to the members of the board or as part of a team pitching for new business.

Performance anxiety (once known as stage fright) can hit even the most practiced performer and in its extreme form present as `social phobia’. The rush of adrenalin results in a fight or flight response and the body goes into supporting the vital organs with increased breathing for oxygen, increased blood pressure and the familiar feeling of nausea.

Peter Chesterfield runs his own recruitment and consulting company, Qube Recruit Consult, and has to present to clients and candidates on a daily basis as well as MC human resource conferences. Yet he has suffered debilitating performance anxiety. “I would sweat and turn into a puddle of sweaty mess and it would show as I would be shiny. I wouldn’t be able to eat, I’d lose sleep the night before” says Chesterfield. “Most of the time I’d be up all night just worried about what people would think by the time I stood on stage my legs would be visibly shaking.”

Peter is not alone. Many Australians experience `glossophobia’ or the `fear of public speaking’ with public surveys consistently putting it higher than the fear of death.

Former Clayton Utz lawyer turned corporate speaker and trainer, Andrew Klein, teaches presentation skills for a living and counts the likes of Ernst & Young, Allergan, Wizard Home Loans, Minter Ellison, BT Financial, Landcom and Wella Hair care as his clients. He believes nerves can work in your favour, if you manage them.

“A little bit of nervousness can be a good thing” says Klein. “The time that you are most nervous is usually at the start of the presentation so I recommend doing something that takes the attention off you to start.

Ask the audience some questions, show a video, prepare your start in detail and by the time you actually get to speak solo you’ll be two to three minutes into the presentation already and the nerves will have dissipated.

The truth is the audience wants you to succeed and most of them aren’t as critical as you are on yourself. They’re often actually thinking about their own stuff and are actually on your side glad it’s you up there and not them.”

Klein has been presenting as a keynote speaker for over seventeen years and has seen and worked with some of the best and less than best speakers in the industry. “I think that presenters often don’t put the presentation together thinking of the perspective of what the audience wants to hear” explains Klein.

“They are thinking too much about what do I want to tell this group of people and they bombard the audience with huge amounts of data and facts and figures all on slide after slide after slide and the audience simply can’t take in that amount of information in a forty five minute keynote.”

The irony for Klein is that often the ordinary presenters are actually often amazing people, highly respected in their fields of expertise. But knowledge and content is one thing and presenting is another.

“I train people to present key messages only, three, four, five max. We don’t want a hundred and seventy five points on a two hundred and twenty seven slide presentation. We want connection and engagement, so use Powerpoint less and replace your bullet points with video and images that tell your message.

Tell funny stories, use anecdotes to get your message across and try to inject your personality. Often the people who present in a boring fashion are boring on stage but they are not necessarily like that off stage” laughs Klein.

“I think there is a belief for some presenters that if they show their personality then they are not being professional but you can be professional and be human and tell stories from your own life. Professional doesn’t always mean serious.”

Michelle Duval is an International Speaker and Business Coach and founder of Equilibrio International. She has been presenting, training and coaching business executives and CEOs for sixteen years. The smallest audience she has presented to is two people and the largest a thousand. “I think the professional speaker is changing and needs to change in the future. Monologues are dead, they don’t cut it – and nor should they” says Duval.

“The one way flow of information had a real place in history but its days are numbered. Panels, discussions, TED eighteen minute talks (still monologue but short and fast) promote a dialogue and a debate that follows are definitely the future and this is reflected in business too with more open exchange.”

Duval oozes presence and connection and a comfort in her own skin and teach others how to be in their skin also. But she says it hasn’t always been that way. “I don’t like being the centre of attention. So learning to talk about myself and share my personal stories were huge hurdles” says Duval of her speaking career.

“I also wanted to be respected for my content and not what I looked like. I would early on get mortally offended by men coming up to me and telling me I looked good or asking me out, rather than what they liked about my presentation.

I used to overcompensate in my presentation for this and be too serious and not myself and come across aloof. So I had to get comfortable with people having their own opinion of me and the reality that I could not control that.”

The issue for many business people having to present or speak in front of colleagues or peers is this fear of being judged. The inner critic can be harsh and loud.

Self-judgement can be debilitating for many who lack both self-esteem and confidence, as Peter Chesterfield knows. He had his own battle of self acceptance to overcome in order to feel more comfortable presenting.

“I’ve tried many things to help with my presenting” says Chesterfield. “To overcome my initial fear in a room with people I don’t know, say a boardroom size room for a pitch to potential new clients, I will go and introduce myself to every person and shake hands and have a small chat and try to remember their name so I have had a connection before I have to present.

I also make sure I feel good about the way I look. I wear my good suit as my presenting armour, I shine my shoes and have a ritual.”

But it was while studying for his MBA that Chesterfield really made a difference to how he presents. One of the subjects in the curriculum required an immense amount of self reflection. He attributes this self-evaluation and resulting acceptance as the key reason his nerves no longer paralyse him.

“I had to accept myself and remind myself that we are all human and it doesn’t have to be a text book scenario presentation and you don’t have to be an academic for people to want to listen,” explains Chesterfield.”

People want to listen to you if you have something interesting to say, that’s it. People see straight through you if you’re not authentic. I learnt to play to my strengths and accept my weaknesses and understand I can’t control others.”

Duval agrees and believes that being yourself is imperative and that while polished speaking skills can aid and support you they are nothing if you are not being true to who you are.

The audience can always tell if you are not.

“Anyone can present if you give yourself permission to learn” says Duval. “But you need to believe you have something worth saying, that is key and it will give you what people call presence. Then you need audience engagement and an understanding of space around you, vocal skills, story-telling skills with a beginning middle and end and a willingness to accept questions because you have the answers because you know your stuff.

If you are presenting internally in your business then you will need to understand your stakeholders and their values and be able to relate your key messages to these while understanding internal politics.”

But what about if you are presenting for new or key business when the stakes are high and there is money to be won?

Karl Treacher is the CEO of The Brand Institute an end to end inside out branding consultancy. Treacher was a global pitch coach with McCann Erikson and now helps senior management present to executive boards and businesses sourcing new clients.

He helps organisations work out who they are and then how they need to express that to the market. The Brand Institute works with purpose and essence, internal culture and internal brand to make companies sustainable.

“One of the biggest challenges is that the people pitching are often too close to the content and overcomplicate it and make it too hard for a client or board to say yes” says Treacher of people pitching for new business and CEOs to boards.

“The second part is the delivery, people can lose perspective and become nervous and undermine the confidence of a project.”

Duval agrees. “The biggest thing that holds back CEOs in the board room is a belief that every question they are asked feels like they are being scrutinised or undermined.

Usually they are not. But with this mindset they are defensive or with holding and shoot themselves in the foot. They need to give themselves permission to be themselves and see the Board as their ally and support team rather than firing squad.”

Treacher says that presenting to a board is about presenting your personal brand and that presenting to a client is presenting your company brand but either way they must be authentic.

He also recommends understanding what your audience is looking for.

“The audience might be following what you are saying but they are looking for the benefit or the risk and they may not be aware that this is what they are doing but they are.

It is all about keeping perspective and being authentic. We can train presentation behaviours but what is key is a psychological shift to understand that presenting is simply a process, it is not life and death. So if you can help people be themselves, people are more joyful when they feel comfortable, then they don’t need to project any other image than who they are intrinsically.

You look at Brian Brown who is so authentic, he is not polished but people know exactly who he is. The problem today is you have a lot of used car salesman in the market helping with presentation skills and pitching and too many of them focus on technique not the psychological element.

Of course being more comfortable about content and knowing your stuff helps and will reduce nerves, though you can over rehearse but you definitely need to own the content, you need to be the knowledge broker of that particular content.”

Klein is also a firm believer in preparation and time spent designing, preparing and practicing

. “Do dry runs” emphasizes Klein. “Not nearly enough presenters do dry runs or time themselves or work out whether the slides will fit into the twenty minute time slot they’ve been given.

We live in an age now where videoing yourself presenting is easy so do it and see and hear what you sound like before you do the presentation on the day.”

The good news for dry mouth butterfly stomach presenters is that it does get better if you work at it.

“I realize now it is a perspective thing” says Chesterfield. “Presenting is ten percent of my job that I am not totally comfortable with and the other ninety percent I really enjoy. I just see the ten percent as a challenge and humanize it by remembering not everyone is going to like me because that is life but if I like me than I will just get better and better.

The key is to fail in a safe environment where the stakes aren’t so high. I try to provide a safe environment for my team now so they can mess up without judgement when put on the spot to speak up. When you realize you didn’t die it helps put it all in perspective.”

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