If the mere thought of standing up in front of an audience makes your knees quiver, you should know that you're not alone. Public speaking is one of the top fears listed by Americans and for good reason- most of us don't do it very often. My personal theory is that the fear stems from the possibility of failure. What if I get up there and can't talk? What if they think I have no idea what I'm talking about? What if I forget my speech?
After spending several years as a technical instructor and in sales, speaking to audiences of 4 to 400+, I've built an arsenal of strategies for presentations. The truth is, even the most seasoned public speakers get at least a little nervous before they step on stage. But the seasoned pros also know the tricks to delivering seamless and engaging presentations.
Keys to Writing a Winning Presentation
Create an Outline. You may not think you need to outline your topic, but be assured it will save you time in the long run. Outlining your entire presentation before you set out to write it lets you organize the flow of information and ensure that you have included all of the relevant topics. One great trick for outlining is to write each key topic on a Post-it note and map it out on a large white board. The sticky notes can be moved and reordered until you find a logical progression.
Determine the Proper Number of Slides. If you are using PowerPoint, the rule of thumb is that each slide should require 2-3 minutes of discussion. If you are speaking for an hour, 60+ slides will be too many. You know your topic best, but 25-30 slides would probably be appropriate for a one-hour presentation.
Limit the Amount of Text. Slides that are too wordy will cause your audience to lose interest faster than the freeway fills up at rush hour. Try to keep to no more than five bullet points and whenever possible, show instead of tell. This means that you should illustrate your topic with charts, graphs, graphics or other visual representation instead of words to keep your content engaging.
Minimize the Bells and Whistles. A lot of activity or noise on your slides is bound to distract your audience. Resist the temptation to pepper your slides with flashy activity or music unless it truly enhances your message.
Proofread and Spell Check- Twice! Nothing kills a presentation faster than grammatical mistakes. You could be the most engaging speaker in the world, but spelling errors and misplaced punctuation can cause your audience to lose focus and question your credibility. I once watched an executive give a presentation with an emphasis on aspirin. He spelled aspirin incorrectly on a series of slides and half the room was talking about it by the time it was over, completely missing a very creative and interesting discussion. If you don't trust your own proofreading ability, have a colleague review your presentation for you.
Keys to Presentation Delivery
Practice, Practice, Practice. Even if you don't have an audience to test your materials on, lock yourself in an empty conference room and start talking to the chairs. It may seem awkward at first, but it's the best way to calm your nerves and to be as prepared as you can. When show time arrives and stage fright kicks in, if you've practiced to the point of practically memorizing the whole speech, you will go into auto-pilot and deliver a flawless performance- even if your brain checks out.
Pace Yourself. Nervous presenters often talk too fast and rush through the materials. When you practice your speech, time it and give yourself some room for questions or interruptions. To help with pacing, consciously pause between sentences and slides. Two seconds may feel like an eternity to you, but it allows your audience time to absorb what you've just said. Even taking a deep breath between sentences and slides can slow you down with the added advantage of calming your nerves.
Film Your Performance. Professional speaking programs use video cameras to show students how to improve their presence on stage. As painful as it may be to watch yourself on film, this is the best way to discover your flaws and nervous ticks. You may find that you sway, play with your pen, jingle the change in your pockets or look like you're dancing because you're moving around so much. Using a video camera to capture your performance lets you identify your nervous habits and break them before you leave the audience talking about how many times you said, "Um."
Use Note Cards or Cheat Sheets. Even the President gets a teleprompter to give his speeches and you have the right to use notes or 3x5 cards to keep you on track. Just be careful not to read them or rely on them too heavily. Fill them with only short bullets to jog your memory and keep your flow, but avoid writing your entire speech verbatim on the cards.
Warm Up the Audience. The best way to get the crowd on your side is to open with humor. Start with a joke or quip that is related to your topic. For help with locating material, check out www.the-jokes.com or www.jokes.com for free access to all kinds of one-liners.
Keep an Eye on the Clock. Audiences and event organizers appreciate speakers who stick to the timeline. Keep an eye on the time so you can speed it up or slow it down. You can also plant someone in the audience to give you hand signals if necessary.
Talk to Foreheads. You should be making an effort to speak to the whole audience, which means looking around the room and making each attendee feel as though you are speaking to them directly. If eye contact makes you even more nervous, then talk to foreheads. Nobody will really notice your lack of true connection yet you will still convey your ability to engage the entire room.
Don't Forget to Smile. Use inflection in your voice and keep a smile on your face. Your audience can mirror your behavior and if you get on stage with a stone face and monotone expression, the whole audience will be depressed (or asleep) by the time you're done. Weave in some humor or anecdotes and let your personality shine through.
Whether you're speaking to a room of six or six hundred, these tips should help you become a more polished presenter. Remember that the number one key to success is to be as prepared as possible. Another great way to learn new techniques is to critique how other presenters perform. Watch presentations on television or at venues in your area. Notice how the speakers engage the audience and watch for tricks that you can incorporate into your own regimen.
For additional speaking experience, consider joining Toastmasters: http://www.toastmasters.org/ where you can network with other presenters and develop your skills. You may never develop affection for speaking in front of a crowd, but that doesn't mean you can't master the challenge. With the right amount of effort, your performance can rank with the pros.
Stephanie Chandler is the author of "The Business Startup Checklist and Planning Guide: Seize Your Entrepreneurial Dreams!" and the founder of http://www.BusinessInfoGuide.com, a directory of free resources for entrepreneurs. Sign up for the BusinessInfoGuide newsletter to receive hot resources and tips every month.