There are a thousand blog posts about how to give presentations when you’re nervous that all basically say the same thing. You and I can both recite most of these tips right now: prepare well, practice, record yourself, take a public speaking class, “be yourself.” All of those tips are fine and good, but mostly useless for people like me who don’t want to do any of that.
It’s not that those classic “get over being nervous” tips aren’t good; I’m sure they work for some people. Not for me. I’ve always been nervous to give present slideshows, and I’ve given plenty of marketing presentations over the years. They’ve never gotten any easier, no matter how much I prepared or slept or chewed on beta-blockers. I’ll always be nervous, even if I’m giving a marketing presentation to a group of coworkers I’ve known for five years.
So if you have the wherewithal to take those speaking classes and memorize all 36 slides in your deck, and are determined to overcome your public speaking fears, then this article isn’t for you. If you’re a coward like me though, then here are my practical, real-world tips (really, tricks) on how to survive giving a presentation that ends up still being pretty darn good.
Avoid doing it.
This is ideal. Hand it off to someone else in your department. Get enough promotions and you can force an underling to do it. It’s great. But it’s not always an option.
Keep it short.
Giving a presentation standing in front of a group of people is like jumping into a hole in a frozen lake: you have a better chance of surviving the shorter it lasts. While social media and smartphones have ruined many things like family meal time and society, one benefit they’ve provided to us is shortening the average attention span. A British study in 2017 found the average Brit’s attention span to be around 14 minutes. Just guessing here, but it’s probably even shorter for Americans. There is even some pseudo-science like a 2015 report from Microsoft that claimed consumers have a shorter attention span than goldfish. That’s… probably not true, but it does show that the classic 20 minute presentation length may be outdated.
In my experience, ten minutes is plenty to get all your main points across. When I’ve presented marketing campaign strategies to coworkers, ten minutes was sufficient time to hit all the major information beats: What is the need? Who is the target audience? What is the campaign? When will it run? What do I need from you?
Note that there is no WHY question in this list. That’s because “whys” take time. “Whys” are philosophical, and they raise existential business questions like “wait, what is our brand?” and “what are we actually doing with our lives?” There’s no time for existentialism in my presentations. And I’ve learned that avoiding “whys” save, on average, 8 minutes of time standing in front of people. Keeping your presentation short not only keeps your audience engaged, but forces you to be economical.
And in my experience, no one has ever complained that a presentation was too short. If need be, I can always email them the slideshow as a follow up.
Play a video.
In a perfect world, I’d be able to play a ten minute video of me doing the presentation at home with multiple YouTube-esque jump cuts that hide my stumbles. Failing this dream scenario, playing a short video has always helped. Not only does it take up some time, it actually helps to hold your audience’s interest. And it gives you a minute or two breather to collect your thoughts before you do the rest of the presentation.
What short video is appropriate? It all depends. Sales presentations are ripe for playing customer testimonials, a demonstration of a product, even a fully produced commercial that shows off your business in a flashy way that is more effective than just you speaking. In marketing presentations, you’ll have to get more creative. A clip of your target customer expressing their pain-points (that your product/service aims to solve) works, or an actor embodying a customer profile (that you’re aiming to hit) going about their day, or footage from the convention floor. Look the content doesn’t have to win an Oscar; it just has to get your audience’s eyes off you and onto the screen as you talk. It sounds silly but it’s quite effective in lowering your nerves when you see that their attention is focused not on your face.
Keep the video to 90 seconds or less, embed it into your slideshow, and you’ll have a small oasis to recuperate during your presentation.
Bring up someone else.
Another trick I’ve used consistently is to have someone on deck to take over for 1-2 slides. My presentation relies heavily on social media? Up comes our unpaid intern who runs Twitter to talk about reach. Let him suffer for a while. Of course, I’ve prepped with said intern and gone over what needs to be said. It’s not filler; it’s actually very informative and necessary to the presentation. But having a change of face will hold attention better, and has the added benefit of giving exposure to other team members. It seems altruistic, even though it’s very selfish. And it works like a charm.
Often times, the additional person is a coworker in an entirely different department. This is the best type, because there’s no question as to why someone is speaking in your place. Of course a Dev person has to talk about how long it will take to set up the new pages for the marketing funnel. It’s technical and not my area. Again, I’ve done the work of speaking with this person previously and getting a rundown of what he/she will say, because I don’t want them to ramble and go off on unnecessary tangents. I’m “cheating,” but I still want my content to be on point.
Yes, this usually take more time and prep, but the point of these tricks isn’t really to save time. Rather, it’s to save on your nerves. It’s worth it to me to spend extra time coaching and preparing with another team member so I don’t have to do it alone. That knowledge of having someone take over in a few slides is a huge psychological help in getting through a stressful presentation.
Rely on Q & A.
Giving the uninterrupted presentation is the hard part. For whatever reason, the back and forth of the Q & A section at the end of a presentation is much easier to handle. It feels like it’s lower stakes since it’s more “ok” to make mistakes, stumble over words, and say “I don’t know.” It’s off the cuff, so people are more forgiving. This is why I’ve always found it sufficient to keep things very high-level in the proper presentation, and deal with the details in the Q & A.
In my mind, if I can get to the Q & A slide, my presentation is over. I’m not performing anymore. I usually even sit down at that point, making me feel even more comfortable. Most of the time, there aren’t many questions about the details anyway, but I make sure to prepare for the questions I expect to get. As I create the slideshow, I jot down the details I’m glossing over that are most likely to be brought up. In this way, though the slideshow itself is short, the preparation and creation of the slideshow is an involved process.
In other words, it’s a race to the Q & A portion. But once you’re there, be prepared to stay a while.
These presentation tips are for the lazy cowards out there, like me, who don’t want to directly address their public speaking issues; but would rather put a band-aid over them. These tricks have worked for me and hopefully they will work for you too. Got any tricks of your own? I’d love to hear them.
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