How to: Get over the nerves of presenting
I present in front of people a lot. In fact, I almost can't remember a time in my career where I wasn't expected to get up in front of people – from maybe two to two thousand, to talk about a new product, a strategy, a vision and, increasingly, my own career journey. Even to this day, I must admit that right before I talk, I get nervous. Yes, despite how experienced I am at being front and centre, I almost always have to go for a nervous wee before I take the front of the room. I believe that being nervous at this stage quite simply means I care deeply about what I am saying. I feel that the day I stop being nervous, will be the day I need to stop. Those nerves convert to energy for me, and once that first sentence is out of the way, off I go ...
One of the best presenting techniques was taught to me early on in my career at Microsoft, by the manager I worked for. He created a workshop for people who were interested in presenting (by then it had actually become part of my role). His session drew about 20 or so people from across the business and his first exercise will stay with me forever. He asked each of us in turn to stand at the front of the room, facing the crowd. You had to stand in silence. No faces. No fidgeting. No giggling. No staring at the floor. For an excruciatingly endless five minutes, you had to make eye contact with each person in the room, with your hands in a relaxed position beside your body. It was agonizing. And as each of us went through the exercise we started to understand that the fear didn't come from the audience, it was something that we brought with us to the stage. We learned to harness the embarrassment, and appreciate the attention. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. Later on, I learned to put that exercise into practice and introduced a very powerful technique in presenting known as "the pause". A punctuation of silence in the middle of a panoply of words to allow the audience to catch up, digest what is being said and then to underscore the very thing you are standing up to stay. Being comfortable with silence when you are at the front of the room is critical to presenting well.
Of course as my career continued, in-house training progressed to external classes and workshops and one of the techniques that I learned a lot about was Neuro Linguistic Programming. The actual science is pretty complex but very simply put it is the skill of gaining rapport* – again critical to any presenter and their audience. The master that taught me those skills remains a friend and mentor today. And then there is the practice itself. Presenting time and time again – some things that go well, some things don't, tech that doesn't work, people that heckle (or leave). And with that practice eventually you achieve a level of expertise.
I have to say though, that even now, I still find myself standing in front of a room of people thinking to myself "what in god's sake have I got that these people can learn from? Why on earth would they want to listen to me?" Then I remember the words from that very first guy who taught us to be silent. You are standing the front of the room because you have something – a piece of knowledge, an experience, a collection of ideas or new thoughts. There is something you know, that they don't. You need to try to figure out what that is, and then deliver it with confidence and clarity and the biggest presenting trump card of them all: <pause> authenticity.
* NLP takes years and years to understand and perfect, I hope my simple explanation does not offend... It's worth Googling.