With Martin G. Moore

Episode #124

Overcoming Stage Fright: Presentation Hacks

There are very few people who are totally comfortable presenting in a public forum, whether it’s a submission to the board, a ‘town hall’ style meeting for people who work on your team, or a sales presentation.

We released an episode over 12 months ago, called “Epic Presentation Fails”. This focused mainly on how to structure a presentation, and how to not bore your audience to death by simply delivering dry information without insight and context.

This week, we’re going to go beyond the original episode to speak about the actual delivery of a presentation. Communication is a core skill for leaders at every level. If you can’t communicate clearly and confidently, you’ll struggle to lead.

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Episode #124 Overcoming Stage Fright: Presentation Hacks

Hey there, and welcome to Episode #124 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode; Overcoming Stage Fright: Presentation hacks. Now there are very few people who are totally comfortable speaking in a public forum, whether it’s a submission to the board, a town hall style meeting for people who work on your team, or a sales presentation. Today, I’m going to answer a question from our listener Shil, who says “Marty I remember the episode Epic Presentation Fails. I’d love to hear more from you around this topic though, especially around prep, managing nerves, and how the art of speaking and communicating ties into networking and meetings”. Now, the episode that Shil refers to was released over 12 months ago, it’s Episode 59. This focused mainly on how to structure a presentation and how to not bore your audience to death by simply delivering dry information without insight or context.

It’s a great starting point for understanding how to put together a winning presentation. So if you haven’t listened to this episode for a while, it will be super valuable to do so before you get into this week’s episode. Today, I’m going to go beyond the original episode to speak about the actual delivery of a presentation. Communication is a core skill for leaders at every level. If you can’t communicate clearly and confidently, you will struggle to lead. So we’ll start today with why many people find speaking in public so hard. I’ll then give a perspective on why this type of verbal communication is actually so important. And I’ll finish by giving you a process that’s absolutely guaranteed to immediately increase your confidence and your competence as a presenter. So let’s get into it.

I’m going to move fairly quickly through the first few parts so that I can get to the things that will really help you to improve, and they actually stand alone pretty well. But to tell you the truth, speaking is my long suit. I absolutely love it. I was a champion debater even before I made it to high school, so I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t confident at speaking in public. But, I’ve helped many leaders over time build their confidence and capability as presenters. Now many people rate public speaking as one of their top fears. Some studies have found that it affects people more than their fear of dying. Although of course I’m always sceptical about the efficacy of this type of research, their methodology, peer review, and so forth, but regardless of this, anecdotally, I know a lot of people who are petrified of speaking in public, giving presentations at work, or even the speech at the daughter’s wedding. A lot of our worst memories of public speaking, go back to our first experiences as impressionable young children in the classroom. We associate it with self-consciousness and embarrassment.

We worry about forgetting our lines or not knowing what to say. We’re worried about being made to look silly, especially if we end up saying something that’s wrong. And we’re afraid of people not agreeing with what we say. Ultimately, this all taps into our fear of not being liked and accepted, and this fear is self-reinforcing. I’m afraid of stuffing it up, so I start every presentation with a palpable lack of confidence. Subconsciously I’m actually expecting the worst. The speech or presentation goes poorly, predictably, and ultimately it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m no good at this and I hate the feeling it gives me. Lack of confidence, leads to poor outcomes, which leads to lack of confidence, which leads to poor outcomes and so forth. Now, this is no different to any other aspect of leadership that we seek to avoid. For some of us, we learn to push through and suck it up because we know it’s a critical element of leadership life, but for others, we actually manage to get to the point of mastery, where we totally enjoy the experience whenever we get the opportunity to present or speak in public.

Why are presentation skills so important? Well, first up, verbal communication is the primary means you have to influence. You get an uninterrupted opportunity to state your case; the background for what you’re thinking, the rationale you have, the process you went through and your conclusions. It’s also the best way for a leader to set expectations. You can convey what’s important and what’s not. And it’s much easier to do in speech than any other media. There’s consistency of message. There are no barriers to language and message dilution, everyone hears the same thing at the same time. The interpretation of what you say? Well, that’s an entirely different matter. It gives you an opportunity to engage and inspire. You can actually tap into people’s emotions with a speech or presentation in a way that other forms of communications simply don’t allow. Do you know anyone who has ever been emotionally impacted and inspired by an email from their manager? Yeah. Right. Me neither.

It gives you an opportunity to learn. Now when you’re presenting to people, you get the opportunity to watch their reactions and listen to their feedback. And this is vital learning experience that you can’t get any other way. It helps you to pinpoint areas of disagreement and misalignment, because quite often people will say to you, “Marty, that won’t work because”. And you’ll get some feedback on your thought process and how it’s gone on and it becomes a dialogue and a conversation. It also allows you to break down hierarchical and structural barriers. No one’s beholden to a chain of command. It actually democratises the messages. Everyone hears the same thing at the same time and there’s no dilution of the message as you go down through the layers. Now, how can you do any of this if you aren’t an expert verbal communicator? No one’s getting excited about your well structured email, we know that. It might surprise you to hear that most people don’t read the written communication you send. The form is limited to say the least. It’s verbal communication and conversation where concepts are conveyed adequately.

Alright so I promised you a fail safe process to help you overcome any stage fright that you may still have. Here’s the first thing, and this is the most important thing. The primary skill you need to develop is not the skill of public speaking. It’s the skill of being able to think on your feet. Now, if you focus on speaking, you’ll practise the wrong things and you’ll practise them the wrong way. You’ll be inclined to practise in solitude and isolation and you’ll practise the art of creating a well-constructed and well-rehearsed monologue. So what’s the problem with this? Well, I’ll tell you what it relies way too much on memory and not enough on thinking. Memorising a story word for word is a lot harder than just recalling a story as it comes to you. It’s essential to know the content, but don’t try to learn it by rote. That’s actually really difficult.

I never tell the same story the same way twice. It depends on my mood and it depends on my audience. If I see people starting to tune out, I can speed things up and move it along. If I see people on the edge of their seats, I can expand and embellish the story and it becomes more descriptive as I go. So when I give a keynote presentation, I’m never afraid of forgetting my lines because there’s actually nothing to forget. For example, all I commit to memory is, ‘At this point, I’m going to tell the story about the 2011 flood disaster when I was Acting Chief Executive at Aurizon.’ That’s it. That’s all I have to remember and then the words just come to me. So instead of trying to memorise the speech word for word, I remember the half dozen or so key stories and concepts that I want to convey. Now to do this, I’m going to give you a practise exercise to go through, but this is exactly the same if you do a presentation for your boss or an executive team, or if you’re presenting to the board. The key element is know your stuff. If you don’t know your stuff, you should be nervous. If the subject matter is highly complex and detailed, you can always take the person in who is the most expert in that particular area, just in case there are questions you can’t field. But if you don’t know your stuff, you have bigger problems than not being able to present. You actually can’t make good decisions in relation to that subject matter. So the first thing is to know your stuff.

Next, work out what the important messages are that you need to convey, for your audience. Now, if you had to give a presentation on a new insurance product, for example, that presentation would be completely different depending on the audience. If it was an internal presentation to your organization’s underwriting team, it would be highly technical and would likely cover things like, the target client market, industry risk factors and a summary of the actuarial analysis of the product itself.

But if you were presenting on exactly the same topic, this new insurance product, to the company’s board, it would be a completely different presentation. It would require you to talk about the impact of the new product on the whole organisational portfolio, the revenue targets, the combined operating ratio, provisioning for claims that are incurred but not reported, and your projected market share. A completely different presentation about exactly the same thing because your audience is different. Now for most people, we tend to look through the world through our own eyes. But if you can put yourself in the shoes of your audience, you’re much more likely to hit the mark. So ask yourself, “If I was sitting in this audience, what would I want to know? How would I best receive this information and put it into context? And what would make it easiest for me, to understand and assimilate?”

Okay, how are we doing? This is all good in theory, don’t memorise words, learn and understand the concepts, facts, and ideas, then work out how to best convey them to your audience. But, how would you actually get good at this? Now this is the moneyball here, right? Here’s a little exercise I use with people who I’m helping to improve their speaking confidence and performance. And this is the key. If you can get good at this, then it’s all over, you’re done.

Pick a topic, that a reasonable person would be expected to know just a little bit about. It can be anything, the Corona virus, credit card debt, home ownership, celebrity influencers. Test yourself by getting someone close to you to pick a random topic, and then give yourself limited time to make a verbal presentation to them, on that topic. They can set parameters that become increasingly difficult. So for example, you might start by allowing yourself five minutes to prepare for a one minute presentation. But eventually, you want to get something like allowing yourself 30 seconds, say, to prepare a five minute presentation. Now here’s how you prepare. What two or three things do I know about this topic? What experiences do I have in my life that support my knowledge or opinions? And how can I make this engaging for my audience? Then, you simply tell that story. So you only need to remember a handful of things.

It’s back to not learning things, word for word, but by understanding the concepts and telling a story. Let me give you an example. If you were to ask me to speak for five minutes on the rainforest of the Amazon, I could have a fairly good crack at it, even though I know virtually nothing about it, and I could do it without any preparation time, let’s say maybe five seconds to clear my head and focus and then I’m away. So let’s go. Forests of the Amazon. Well, first I’d talk about the importance of forests in controlling carbon emissions. Because of the process of photo synthesis, forests are as critical in the process of preventing global warming as cutting the primary emissions from oil and coal. Plants naturally remove carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. It’s like nature’s carbon scrubber. I’d go on from there and talk about the incredible importance of forests in providing the habitat for hundreds of thousands of species of flora and fauna.

Then I’d probably talk about the few facts that I happen to know about forestry industries in general. So first, how widespread deforestation has been occurring for decades because of the global demand for products it produces like paper and furniture. I’d talk about how around one fifth of the world’s population is dependent on forestry for their livelihoods. And guess what? Now I’ve completely exhausted my knowledge of rainforests of the Amazon. So, what do I do? I’m going to move on to something a little more personal. Now, when I lived in Canberra, I used to often go trail running in the beautiful pine and eucalyptus forests around the city. So I’d talk about the restorative nature of running through forest trails. I’d compare it to the grind of doing a 30 kilometre training run through urban streets on a hard surface and how much easier it is in the forest. Time flies and I never feel as tired afterwards.

Now, clearly this isn’t about the rainforests of the Amazon. But I’ve segued from the rainforests of the Amazon to a personal experience of the forest in my local environment, and that works okay. Now to finish off I’d perhaps come back to the Amazon and talk about the fact that I’ve never really explored South America, except for a brief trip to a mine in Argentina that was owned by the company I worked for at the time. Now the beauty of the charter flight to get to the mine site in the north of the country is something I won’t forget. Then maybe if I had more time, I’d talk about how many white knuckle flights I’d actually had when working in the mining industry and how because of that, now I won’t get into an aircraft unless it has at least 20 seats and 2 engines.

Now I could do this all day. It’s almost like playing word association. But, if you get really good at this, you can learn to talk about anything, at any time. You learn to link concepts together and you’ll learn to not be afraid to share personal experiences. And this is the heart of presentations. You become less slavish to the process. If I had limited myself to only talking about the Amazon rainforests, per se, it would have been a pretty short presentation. But instead, you got to know a little bit more about me, you probably picked up some fun facts and hopefully I entertained you a little. Now just to be really clear, this is a development exercise. I’m not suggesting you use this as your methodology for preparing a keynote address or presenting an investment proposal to your board. It’s designed purely as a bit of homework to give you confidence that you can competently speak in front of other people and overcome your fears.

So that’s the exercise. Now to support this, you’ve got to grow your general knowledge. And I hate to tell you this, but you’re not going to become more knowledgeable or erudite by reading your social media feed. You’ll actually become more ignorant. Over time, you’re served an increasingly staple diet of the things you already like, already think, and already believe. That’s the way it’s designed. So with the whole world at our fingertips, in this internet age, who would have ever thought that it would result in us becoming more insular and ignorant, but there’s plenty of evidence for this. So I read widely. Credible publications and books, and I try and stretch myself into areas I wouldn’t normally go. So the podcast that is currently stretching my thinking is the Megan Kelly Show. Why? Well, because in Australia we don’t really get much input or content from the conservative side of politics. The media stream here is very liberal and left-wing focused and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that I want to also understand how other people think. Now it would be ridiculous to suggest that half the population are wrong about anything really.

So the better I can understand them, the more balanced and well-informed, I’m likely to be. With U S politics, and particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic playing out in the U S the way it is, I want to understand how other people think about it and how they’re approaching the same problems in a different way. It would be really easy to sit back and say, “They’re idiots.” But they’re not. They simply have a different perspective based on different experiences, education and information. The reason I like Megan Kelly’s podcast is because she’s an incredibly smart and well-educated person, and I can trust her to give me a balanced, albeit a conservative perspective, that’s hard to find anywhere else. Now, this isn’t easy. You have to deliberately go out of your way to find a balance of information that will help to make you more knowledgeable.

Let’s move on to handling nerves. Before an important keynote, I will often get that little unsettling feeling in my stomach just before I go on. We often call it butterflies, and it’s basically a physical reaction to nervousness. Here’s a great hack to handle nervousness. When you get that feeling, don’t be afraid of it. Welcome it. Whenever I get that feeling I say to myself, “That’s excellent. This is a sign. My body’s giving me a sign that I’m taking what I’m just about to do really seriously. It’s physically preparing me so that I can give my best and to focus me on what I need to give to this audience. I’ll do a much better job because I’m fully focused and I’m in the zone”. Now once you to learn to welcome that feeling, you’ll step onto the stage with a feeling of anticipation that converts very quickly into confidence and command of your situation. This is the best little hack for nervousness you can ever have.

Now we’ve covered a lot of ground and these tools are incredibly powerful if you put them into practise. So to tie all this together: Number 1, don’t try to get better at speaking, try to get better at thinking on your feet. Number 2, there’s no substitute for knowing your shit. Number 3, know your audience and put yourself in their shoes. Number 4, work at expanding your general knowledge and finally Number 5, welcome the butterflies, they’re a positive sign, not something to be afraid of. If you dedicate some time and work hard on that powerful exercise of giving spontaneous presentations on commonly understood topics with limited preparation, your confidence will grow and everything from there will be just a little less scary in the future.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode #124. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember at Your CEO Mentor our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please take a few minutes to share this with your leadership network. I’ll look forward to next week’s episode; Can you coach character? Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullsh!t leader.


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