If You’re Petrified of Giving a Presentation, Read This

June 3, 2016, 3:00 PM UTC
Performer on stage in theater
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Glossophobia. If ever there was an innocuous-sounding phobia name, this just might be it. But as anyone who suffers from it knows, it’s anything but innocuous. More commonly known as the fear of public speaking, glossophobia can be more terrifying than death. According to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the fear is so bad that most people would rather be in the casket at their own funeral than delivering the eulogy at someone else’s.

Whether you’re the type whose voice gets shaky or the type whose palms get sweaty, the good news is there’s much you can do to reduce these pesky symptoms, gain more confidence and ensure that your next presentation will likely be the best you’ve ever given.

1. Get interested in what you’re talking about.

It comes as no surprise that practicing your presentation is the best way to improve your skills. But what’s often overlooked is the impact your passion for the topic can have. “When you truly care about the subject matter you’re talking about, the enthusiasm overcomes your natural nervousness”, says Ronald Drescher, a professional speaker and attorney based in Baltimore. “Your priorities become more about the ideas you’re communicating than how you’re coming across.” And when your enthusiasm leads the way, your anxiety starts to fade away.

Related: The One Skill Most People Lack

2. Do a dry run in front of other people.

Take advantage of whatever opportunities arise to practice your speech in front of a live audience. According to the research done at Stanford University by psychologist Robert Zajonc, the mere presence of other people when you practice can improve your performance.

My OratorPro mobile app provides a speaker with real-time feedback from an audience either during practice or a live presentation. It’s been shown that practicing in front of a small group is a great way to prepare for a presentation in front of any size audience a smaller group allows you to observe facial expressions that can give you valuable feedback.

3. Don’t steal someone else’s personality.

There are many people who just don’t believe they have the “right” personality to be an effective speaker. If you’re one of them, all you need to do is take a look at some of the presentations posted on the TED Talks website. It’s an amazing collection of insightful, thoughtful, technical, and humorous presentations given by an equally amazing assortment of presenters – and personalities.

As Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead, notes there are further benefits as well. “When you let your passion and your personality guide you, you’ll find that your body language will more naturally enhance your delivery,” she says. “When your body language doesn’t match your words, your verbal message is lost.”


4. Forget about staying calm. Instead, try getting excited.

Recent studies at Harvard University have shown that by simply trying to “stay calm,” presenters tend to feel less confident, and as a result become less persuasive. However, those who used anxiety to drive their enthusiasm consistently delivered more compelling presentations. Alison Wood Brooks, one study’s author at HBS, says that since both anxiety and excitement are emotional states driven by high arousal, it might be easier to get excited than to calm down.

5. Know what it is you’re trying to achieve.

Even seasoned presenters give presentations without taking into consideration their intentions.

Most presentations fall into one of the following six categories:

  • Share information
  • Review status and provide updates
  • Disseminate important news or decisions
  • Need a decision to be made
  • Gain consensus
  • Brainstorm

Depending on which of these objectives you need to include, consider modifying how you build and deliver your presentation. Your tone, emotions, pacing and how the story flows should all be in sync with your intentions.

6. Prepare for the worst, should disaster strike.

What about when things go wrong? Try to imagine a few of the worst possible things that could happen during your presentation. Maybe the projector bulb burns out. Or the hard drive on your computer crashes – taking all your slides with it. Whatever it might be, take a moment to consider what you would do in each case as a contingency.

When I was a corporate road warrior giving dozens of presentations each week, I carried a small card in a cellophane wrapping in my wallet that said, “In case of emergency, break this open.” On the card was a list of one-liner jokes and puns about presentation disasters I could use should a major mishap occur.

Stuart Friedman is a global communications expert and the creator of OratorPro, an app that gives presenters real-time feedback.