So You've Been Asked to Make a Presentation...

How does that make you feel? Excited? Looking forward to it? Anxious about what might go wrong? Stressed?

If anxiety and stress are your dominant reactions, you're in good company. Earlier this year, actress Nicole Kidman was in her hometown of Sydney for a formal awards presentation to a group of young Australian actors. Although she is a professional actress who spends much of her time performing in front of the camera under all the pressures that come with the bright lights of Hollywood, she confided to her audience that those professional stresses were trivial compared to the nervousness which she feels when addressing a live audience.

Management guru Tom Peters holds the rapt attention of hundreds of senior managers for hours. Yet he confesses to being an introvert who is shy by nature. Standing up in front of a high-powered audience doesn't come easy for him, he says.

In fact, a survey published in the Financial Times revealed that speaking in public is our most widespread fear: The thought of making a presentation is more terrifying to people than being bitten by a snake, dying in an airplane crash or going bankrupt. We can only speculate on the reasoning. Perhaps those other things, dreadful as they are, at least pass quickly. But when a business presentation is going badly, the torture seems to drag on forever.

Is speaking anxiety normal? Of course it is. Must we let it escalate into the unreasonable fear which it holds for many presenters? Not at all! There is no "magic bullet" to eliminate speaking anxiety. But you can learn to keep speaking anxiety in the manageable zone and even to turn it to good effect. Speaking anxiety has its roots in your desire to make a positive impression. If you didn't care about succeeding, you would have no reason to feel nervous. The secret is to harness this energy and concern in order to make it work for you rather than against you.

You can accomplish this through a judicious combination of four strategies. We call them "The Four P's". Preparation, Practise, Physical Relaxation and Positive Thinking. In this article, we will look at two of the "Four P's": preparation and practice.

Preparation - If you have thrown your presentation together at the last minute, then you have good reason for feeling anxious! There are techniques to help you in those situations where your boss asks you to make a presentation to a visiting executive or key client on fifteen minutes' notice. Since you usually have anything from several weeks to several months to prepare, however, one of the most effective antidotes for speaking anxiety is the knowledge that you have "done your homework". If you know that you have prepared well, you have less to feel anxious about.

Setting Objectives - The key is not just putting in preparation time, but making the most effective use of your preparation time. At an early stage in your preparation, it is essential to establish clear objectives for your presentation: What do you want to accomplish through this presentation? Why are you making it?

Presentation objectives typically fall into four categories. In order of increasing challenge, these are informing, educating, persuading and motivating to action.

Motivating to action is the most challenging objective. You want your listeners not just to agree with your argument, but also to follow through with some desired action. For example, when a sales rep presents his product line to a purchasing manager or the purchasing committee, his objective is not just to secure their agreement. He also wants them to follow through with a purchase order or contract.

In addition to the explicit objectives which you identify in any or all of these four categories, you have one implicit objective in every presentation which you make: to get and keep the audience's interest, to stimulate them, to grab their attention and hold on to it. This fundamental objective must be taken into account in each stage of the presentation design. If you don't first achieve this basic objective, you can't achieve any of the others.

Analyzing Your Audience - A second stage of preparation is audience analysis. To design an "audience friendly" presentation, you have to know something about your audience. Sometimes this is obvious. When you make a presentation at the weekly management meeting, your audience consists of professional colleagues who are personally known to you.

Other times, however, your audience consists of individuals who you have never met. With a little detective work, however, it is always possible to learn something about the profile of the audience: What is the age range? What is their professional background? What are their values and attitudes? How much do they know about your topic? What would be useful for them?

This last question is particularly important where your objective is to persuade or to motivate to action. If you frame what you have to say in ways that meet some need on the part of your listeners, you greatly increase your chances of getting their agreement.

The outcome of your audience analysis will shape your subsequent preparation. A financial manager presenting the last quarter's results to his management team and to a group of institutional shareholders would design two quite different presentations based on his audience analysis. The topic may be the same, but the audience (and perhaps the objectives as well) are quite distinct. Audience analysis helps you to ensure that your presentation is on the right wavelength for this audience.

Setting presentation objectives and analyzing your audience doesn't necessarily require a lot of time. Sometimes five minutes on each is sufficient. But both are critical steps very early in the preparation stage. They guide all of your subsequent preparation. And they later help to eliminate speaking anxiety because you are confident that you are delivering the right presentation to the right audience.

There is, of course, much more to the preparation stage. After setting objectives and analyzing your audience, you must gather and organize the appropriate material to meet your objectives with this audience.

Practise - Ironically, a common cause of speaking anxiety is too much time spent on the preparation stage. It is a problem because lots of time spent on preparing the presentation leaves you too little time to practise the presentation. It's easy to assume that, if we do a good enough job of gathering information and organizing it, the facts will speak for themselves. But this is simply not true. The facts need you - the presenter - to speak for them, and to do it in a polished way if they are to come across to listeners.

Preparing the presentation is like organizing a party. Practising is like sending out the invitations. Perhaps you get so wrapped up in the details of organization that you forget to send out the invitations, or maybe you send them out too late. The consequence is that you will have no guests to enjoy all the work that you put into getting the party organized.

Inadequate practice is a major source of speaking anxiety. Knowing that you have organized the presentation thoroughly - gathering data, preparing audiovisuals, etc. - is not enough. Practising the presentation delivery helps you to build your confidence; building confidence reduces speaking anxiety; and reduced speaking anxiety means a better delivery.

A rule of thumb is to reserve at least a third of your total available preparation time for practise. If you have a 30-minute presentation coming up next month, and the total amount of time which you have to get ready is six hours, then save at least two of the six hours for practice. After four hours gathering data and organizing what you want to say, there is often a temptation to spend more time polishing the organization and improving the audiovisuals. Resist this temptation and move on to the practise stage. A presentation with modest ambitions which is well delivered is far more effective than than the best organized presentation full of the latest presentation technology - but which falls flat because of inadequate practise.

Reserving time for practise is essential; how the practise time is spent is equally important. If you have a total of two hours' practice time for a 30-minute presentation, running through the entire presentation four times is not making the best use of your practise time. Some parts of your presentation will benefit from intensive practice: the beginning, the ending, the transitions between sections. These are the places where you are most likely to draw a blank when you are standing in front of your audience.

Once you get into the meat of a particular section, on the other hand, there is usually a natural flow which will help to guide your thoughts until you reach the end of that section and need to make a transition to the next part of your presentation. So a wise use of the two hours is as follows: Run through the entire presentation (30 minutes). Then use an hour of practice time to rehearse the beginning, the ending, the transitions and any other parts which gave you difficulty during the initial run-through until you know them cold. All together, these key parts of the presentation probably take up less than ten minutes of your half-hour presentation. You can do quite a lot in an hour, especially if it is spread over several days. Then use the remaining 30 minutes for a dress rehearsal.

Where is the best place to practise? If you can run through the presentation at least once at the venue where you will actually deliver it, you will have a major advantage. You have an opportunity to discover in advance and in private any little "surprises" which this venue holds for you - such as an overhead projector which has no power when switched on, or that small step up to the platform which could send you sprawling.

After a practise session, the venue is no longer "new" to you. It is a familiar pattern, and so will reassure you rather than heighten your anxiety. If you can't run through your entire presentation at least once in the venue where it will actually take place, try to run through at least some key parts (such as the beginning and ending) there.

Where else can you practise? Just about anywhere: in a conference room, at home, in your office. Practising on video is an excellent way of simulating the pressure that comes with the real presentation as well as seeing how you come across to others. A dry run in front of friend, family member or business colleague is also useful to identify and correct weak spots in content or delivery.

Remember the importance of focusing much of your practise on critical passages: opening, closing and transitions between sections. These are short but need enough repetition for you to know them by heart. Any time you are alone, you can run through these parts in your mind or aloud: when you are out for a walk, driving on the highway with little traffic, even in the shower.

Speaking anxiety is greatly reduced if you know the first one to three minutes of your presentation by memory. When it's your turn to speak and all eyes turn expectantly toward you, the last thing you want to do is start fumbling with your notes. The saying reminds us that "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." If you have committed your opening to memory, then you simply have to switch on the autopilot. During those critical opening moments you can concentrate on establishing eye contact with your audience and on strong voice projection. When you come to the end of your opening, that is the time to start using your notes.

It is not only the speaker who feels anxious and stressed when a presentation is going badly; the audience is also ill at ease. Sensing this, the speaker becomes even more stressed, and a downward spiral is set in motion. A strong opening sends a message of competence and control from the speaker to the audience. As this message comes across, you can sense a positive feeling in the audience. Sensing this, it's natural for the speaker to relax because everything is off to a good start for both sides.

Your closing is the last impression you leave with your audience. A strong closing can compensate for a few bobbles during the presentation. A weak closing drains the positive impression out of even the most polished presentation. This is why it is also important to commit the last minute or so to memory. It allows you to end on a strong note while making full eye contact with your audience.

Speaking anxiety is a normal and natural phenomenon which afflicts even professionals who spend their lives in front of audiences. It's a sign that we want to do our best, to make the right impression on our audience. Once you recognize this, the next step is learn to manage speaking anxiety in a productive way rather than letting feelings of stress and nervousness manage you.

Craig Collins is Principal Consultant of Orion International. He and his assocoates have helped hundreds of managers and professionals to sharpen their skills as presenters through workshops and coaching. He can be reached at