There are four keys to giving a successful talk or presentation:
(4) Learning how to harness your nerves
“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
– Mark Twain
“The very best impromptu speeches are the ones written well in advance.”
– Actress Ruth Gordon
Nothing can replace preparation.
Unless you are one of the lucky people who can improvise well, you should outline your presentation, and then write out notes or use index cards to map out exactly what you want to say. Then practice until you don’t need the notes anymore.
If you feel like you need some notes with you during the presentation, just jot down key words to jog your memory. If you try to read anything other than a couple of key words, you won’t be able to pull it off.
Energy is a vital component to good presentation. If you’re dragging and listless, you won’t do well, no matter how prepared you are or how insightful your comments.
Roger Ailes – Ronald Reagan’s chief of communications and now the head of Fox News – might be a rabbid ideologue, but he wrote a whole book on this subject which is really pretty good. The whole book can be summed up in the statement: “An ounce of energy is worth a pound of technique”.
Ailes gives the following advice:
How do you get that kind of positive energy, especially when you’re nervous about giving a speech, chairing a meeting, or being interviewed for a job or by the news media, for example.
Ask yourself: What am I thinking about? Am I focused on positive things like “This is an opportunity ….Let me review my agenda: What are the points I want to make? This can be fun; I’ve been asked to speak because the believe I’m an authority and can contribute something”? These kinds of thoughts will energize you in a way that will help you be successful.
If you like exercise, then you already know that vigorous exercise will boost your energy and pump you up. Go exercise before your talk.
The best speakers throw in at least a little humor. World-class speakers often start their talks with a joke.
If you are not a naturally funny person, you can try to write out a joke in advance as part of your preparation (see above). But be sure to try it out on a friend – bad humor is worse than no humor at all.
At the very least, you can use the following proven trick for reducing nervousness during your presentation: visualize your audience members’ heads as being heads of cabbage. No one else has to know what you’re doing, but it will help put you in a relaxed state of mind.
Harnessing Your Nerves
I have performed in front of thousands of people. And I can attest that everyone gets nervous. It is simply human.
But don’t believe me. Listen to the top performers: they all say that they still get nervous before performances.
In fact, the top speakers, musicians, athletes and performers in every field know that nervousness is a good thing.
Because nervous energy is the raw fuel which powers their performance. The top performers know how to channel that raw energy into a good performance. Successful performers actually look at nervous energy as rocket fuel to power an outstanding performance.
The trick is not to fight it. If you try to force your self not to be nervous, you will get more nervous and will not perform well.
Instead of labeling that feeling as being “stressed” or “nervous”, think of it as being “excited” or “energized”.
Nothing I can write will convince you that stress if the fuel for a successful performance. I have performed enough to know what I’m talking about, and performance experts say the same thing. But you have to verify this for yourself.
Practice speaking in front of groups of friends. Practice making a presentation to a co-worker. Practice getting nervous and performing well anyway. (And if your presentation is clumsy, go back and prepare more. Also ask your friends or co-workers what would make it better. Keep practicing – the more you practice the better you’ll get.)
Doing that will prove to you that nervousness is simply part of the package, and that you can perform even when you’re nervous. Again, remember that you’re in good company – everyone gets nervous, including the world’s top performers.
Now go perform!
Note: One-on-one presentations to Congressional aides or sales presentations have their own nuances. For example, listening to the person you are talking to, seeing what is important to him or her, and drawing out his or her perspectives is vital. This essay focuses more on presentations to a group.