There are two pernicious myths regarding business presentations out there that refuse to be swatted down. Well, probably more than two, but two big myths that persistently burden folks.
These myths influence two large groups of people. Without knowing it, these folks subscribe to two schools of presentation thought . . . Birthers and McTips.
The first group – the “Birthers” presentation school – believes that superb public speakers are “born that way.”
Folks in this group believes that it’s nature-not-nurture and that natural talent wins the day. Since it’s an ability you either have or you don’t, well there’s no need to even try. Just sit back and marvel at those outstanding public speakers who make it all look so easy, but who actually utilize a host of techniques to charm and dazzle you.
Techniques that would be available to you if you would only set aside the self-defeating notion that you can’t develop especially powerful presentation skills.
Supersize Those McTips?
The second group – the “McTips” presentation school – believes that public speaking is both easy and easily learned. Folks here believe that following a few presenting “McTips” or easy “McSteps” can turn them into tremendous speakers. “Make eye contact” . . . “Move around when you talk” . . . “Use your hands” . . . Presto.
This McTips view is so pernicious that it does more damage than good. It’s like a get-rich-quick scheme that scams people. And who wouldn’t want to believe that there’s a painless shortcut to one of the most universally despised activities in corporate America?
One colleague told me a while back, his fingers steepled in front of him, “I can teach my people all they need to know about presenting in 30 minutes . . . all that other stuff is just B__ S___.”
Really? And if becoming a great presenter is so incredibly easy and the product of a few tips or steps, then why does the bar stay so low with regard to business presentations? Why does our business landscape resemble a wasteland strewn with mind-numbing PowerPoint slides and populated with droning executive automatons?
Both views are not only wrong, but they can stunt your development as a top-notch business presenter.
Great presenters are neither born, nor are they easily made.
Anyone can become an especially powerful, capable speaker . . . but it takes work, practice, and courage.
Several months ago, I here asked the rhetorical question “Do you have a case of Bad Voice.”
Rather than a mere provocation, the question is real and addresses one of the most pervasive problems in business presenting today.
It’s a problem that goes unrecognized and, as such, remains a debilitating burden for many people who could otherwise be superb speakers.
We tend to think that our voices are off-limits when it comes to changing, let alone improving. We believe our voice is “natural” when, in fact, it is likely the product of undisciplined and random influences – parents, peers, television, celebrities, radio, occasional mimicry.
Voices Often Develop on their Own . . . Chaotically
Many influences in our culture have, in the last decade or so, urged on us a plaintive, world-weary whine as voice-of-choice. Thus, voice becomes a matter of style – not just in the slang we choose to use, but in the way our voices sound when we use that slang.
So what’s a “bad voice?”
Do you swallow your voice in the back of your throat so that you produce a nasal twang? Is it pinched? Do you use your chest as the resonating chamber it ought to be, or does your voice emanate from your throat alone? High-pitched. Small. Weak. Unpleasant. Pinched. Nasal. Raspy.
Next time you stand in line at the convenience store, listen to the people around you. Focus on the voices. Listen for the trapped nasal sound, the whine of precious self-indulgence.
Or the sound of air rasping across vocal cords. A voice that has no force. No depth. A voice you could swat away as you would backhand a fly.
A voice from reality television. A cartoon voice.
The cartoon voice is more prevalent than you might imagine. Several reasonably-known celebrities have cartoon voices, and they usually dwell in the wasteland of daytime television.
Take this person called Kelly Ripa, who participates on a show called “Live with Regis and Kelly.” This ABC Network television program, an abysmal daytime offering, serves up Ms. Ripa not for her voice, but for other attributes. This show is worth watching, once, if only to hear Ms. Ripa’s slam-on-the-brakes whine.
Two other champions of the squeaky, whiney cartoon voice are people who appear to have achieved a degree of questionable fame for all of the wrong reasons: Kim Kardashian and Meghan McCain. Their voices are barely serviceable for even routine communication and embody all that is wrong with regard to delivering powerful presentations. They exhibit habitual pathologies of the worst sort.
But . . . my voice is “natural!”
If you want to become a good speaker, but you do not accept that you can and should improve your voice, it means that you are much like an un-coachable football player. Oh, you want to become a superb football player, but you refuse to listen to the coach.
He tells you to develop your muscles and coordination in the gym, but you refuse.
Instead, you respond that your body’s musculature is “natural.” You believe that you can become a great football player without “cheating” with weight training or cardio conditioning. Or by modifying your “natural” physique by exercising and building your muscles and coordination.
I’m sure you see the absurdity in this.
The same is true when it comes to your voice. Voice is an extremely personal attribute, and people don’t take criticism lightly, perhaps viewing it as a self-esteem issue or an attack on personhood. It’s not.
Don’t bristle at the notion that you should change your voice. This is naiveté and vanity and ego masquerading as who-knows what.
This is a self-imposed handicap and an excuse for inaction. You are holding yourself back. It is also a manifestation of fear. Clare Tree Major observed this fear almost a century ago in college students of her time:
“People are exceedingly sensitive about changing their methods of speech for fear it will bring upon them the ridicule of their families and friends. . . . Charm and grace and beauty will come only when speech is unconscious – not while you have to think of every word and tone. If a thing is right there can be no question of affectation. It is a greater affectation to do the wrong merely to pander to the less cultured tastes of others. If you know a thing is right, do it. If you have not this ideal and this courage, then it will waste your time to study correct speech. ”
What is your voice but a means of communication? Does it have purposes other than speaking or singing? Other than communicating? And if we consider this carefully, it’s easy to see that clear communication depends upon the timbre of your voice.
It does matter what others think of your voice, since you use it to communicate, and it is others who receive your messages. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to cultivate the most effective voice you possibly can? So that you might communicate most effectively?
Put another way, doesn’t it make sense to eliminate what is unpleasant, ineffectual, shrill, and dissonant from your voice, if possible?
Don’t assume that you know what I mean by preparation and practice, because we likely have different conceptions of both, and I’m betting you’ll like the results you get from my approach.
So, settle in . . . and for the next couple of days, we will explore the Three Ps and how their assiduous application can transform you into the Especially Powerful Presenter that you always knew you could be.
We should strive to infuse our presentations with energy by using positive power words, but instead we sabotage ourselves in our presentations more often than we imagine.
Negative self-talk is one of the chief culprits.
“I hate presentations,” is the negative phrase I hear most frequently, and it undermines everything we strive for in business school presenting. How can we construct any positive presentation experience on such a porous, spongy foundation?
We tell ourselves repeatedly that we’ll fail.
We envision failure, humiliation, embarassment, and complete meltdown.
Envision Success Instead
All of this negative self-talk can translate into bodily reactions of nervousness, trembling, faltering voice, shaking knees, sweating, and flushing.
Moreover, our sour and weak attitude ensures that we aren’t the greatest source of strength to our teammates if we happen to be delivering a group presentation.
The negative spiral down guarantees that things get worse before they get better . . . if at all.
There is, in fact, no greater guarantee of failure. How could anyone succeed at anything with this type of visualization?
Leaving aside the specific techniques for a later time and the psychological underpinnings of it that go back more than a century, let’s say here and now that we must at the very least rid ourselves of the negative self-talk so that we may have any chance of succeeding at business presenting.
Think Like an Athlete – Use Power Words
The world’s elite athletes train the mind as well as the body, and visualization of successful outcomes is one of the techniques they use to prepare for competition. I work often with sports psychologists and mental toughness coaches who train athletes in visualization techniques, and all of are one opinion that the mind-body connection – healthy or unhealthy – impacts performance tremendously.
So why do we talk ourselves down into the morass of defeat?
Quite possibly, it’s the widespread ignorance of how to deliver a powerful presentation, and this ignorance means incredible uncertainty of performance. Ignorance, uncertainty, and pressure to perform breed fear.
In my experience, it’s this fear of the unknown that drives up anxiety. So the key to reducing that anxiety is uncertainty reduction – thorough preparation and control of the variables within our power.
Preparation is the second of the Three Ps of Speaking Technique – Principles, Preparation, Practice. Can we foresee everything that might go wrong? No, of course not, and we don’t even want to . . . instead, we plan everything that will go right, and we focus on that.
Envision Your Triumph
No one can win by constantly visualizing failure.
Envision this, instead – you deliver a tight, first-rate presentation that hits all the right notes, weaves a story that grips your audience, that keeps the audience rapt, and ends in a major ovation and a satisfying feeling of a job well-done.
You lace your presentation with power words to inspire both you and your audience: confidence . . . capability . . . thought . . . vision . . . future . . . focus . . . competence . . . strong . . . ability . . . know-how . . . victory . . . success.
When we take the stage, we put our minds on what we intend, and we charge forward boldly and confidently, executing our presentation with masterful aplomb and professionalism. With this kind of psychological commitment, we squeeze out the doubts and anxiety, wring them dry from our psychic fabric.
The right kind of preparation allows us to deal capably with the handful of unknowns that might wiggle in to nettle us.
After reading about the symptoms and hearing so much about handwringing over presentation stage fright, if you weren’t fearful of business speaking before, you certainly are now.
When we speak of presentation stage fright, we are really talking about the battle within ourselves as we prepare to deliver our presentation.
It’s self-confidence versus self-doubt.
Confidence is one of those elusive qualities.
It’s almost paradoxical. When we have it, it’s invisible. When we don’t have it, it’s all too apparent to us.
Confidence in public speaking is hard to come by.
Or so we think. Let’s back into this thing called confidence.
Take the Trip Test
Have you ever stumbled on the sidewalk, your toe catching an impossibly small defect in the concrete, enough to trip you up? You stumble and stagger a bit. And then . . .
. . . and then do you glance quickly around to see who might be looking? Do you feel shame of some sort? If not shame, then . . . something that gives you to mildly fear the judgment of others? Even strangers.
Or do you stride purposely forward, oblivious to others’ reactions, because they truly don’t matter to you?
Recognize this “trip test” as a measure of your self-confidence, your conception of yourself.
Recognize that you don’t need the validation of others in what you do.
This doesn’t mean to act in ways immature and self-indulgent. It means charting your own course with your internal moral and professional compass and having the strength of mind and purpose not to yield to kibitzers, naysayers, and kneejerk critics.
Now, bring that strength of mind and purpose to the realm of business presentations.
Presentation Stage Fright Begone!
For many, the audience is your bogeyman. For some reason you fear your audience. But understand that they are not gathered there to harm you . . . they are gathered to hear what you have to say.
And 99.9 percent of them mean you well.
They want you to succeed, so that they can benefit in some way.
Yes, even your fellow students want you to succeed. They want to be entertained. Please entertain us, they think.
They are open to whatever new insight you can provide. And they know, for a fact, that they will be in your same place many times during their careers. They are fellow-travelers in the business presentation journey.
And so confidence is yours for the taking.
Seize Confidence for Yourself
Confidence is not a thing.
It cannot be grasped or packaged or bought. It’s a state of mind, isn’t it? It’s a feeling. When we get right down to it, it really is just the mental context within which we perform.
What does it really mean to be confident? Can you answer that direct question? Think about it a moment.
See? We can’t even think of confidence outside of doing something, of performing an action. Our confidence – or lack of confidence – provides us the context of our activities.
Is it certitude?
Is it knowledge?
Is it bravery?
Is it surety?
Think of the times when you are confident. You might be confident at playing a certain sport or playing a musical instrument. It could be an activity.
Why are you confident?
Confidence is largely the absence of uncertainty. For it’s uncertainty that makes us fearful. That, and the dread of some consequence – embarrassment or ridicule.
It should be recognized that many people do fear speaking before an audience. It is so universal and it is so pervasive that we must come to grips with it.
This presentation stage fright has made its way down through the ages. It has paralyzed thousands of speakers and presenters who have come before you. And generations of speakers have tackled this fear.
George Rowland Collins is an old master who recognized the phenomenon in 1923 and its awful effect on the would-be presenter . . .
The very first problem that faces the average man in speech-making is the problem of nervousness. To stand up before an audience without a scrap of paper or a note of any kind, to feel the eyes of dozens and even hundreds of people upon you, to sense the awful silence that awaits your own words, to know that you must depend upon yourself and yourself alone to hold the audience’s attention is as trying a task as it is possible to undertake. Most men find the task too great and shun it religiously. Those who do attempt it, voluntarily, or involuntarily, testify to the severity of the physical and mental suffering it involves.
The solution to presentation stage fright? How have centuries of speakers successfully tackled this bete noire?
Reduce your uncertainty.
Reduce your uncertainty by applying the Three Ps: Principles, Preparation, Practice. Through these, you achieve a wealth of self-confidence, and we’ll talk about the Three Ps in days and weeks to come.
They are so utterly essential to Power Presenting that they bear repetition and constant reinforcement. They are the cornerstone upon which you build your style, your confidence, your performance pizzazz.
Principles, Preparation, Practice
The 7 principles of presenting offered here at Business School Presenting™ – the “secrets” of the masters – are grouped under Stance, Voice, Gesture, Movement, Expression, Appearance and Passion. Each of these deserves its own chapter and, indeed, has its own chapter in my book The Official College Guide to Business School Presenting.
Prepare your talk, then practice your talk at least 4 times, exactly as you will deliver it – without stopping.
When you apply the Three Ps, you reduce uncertainty. You are possess the facts. You are prepared. You know what to expect because you have been there before, and because you practice. You rehearse.
There is, of course, an element of uncertainty. There is uncertainty because you cannot control everything or everybody, and this causes a tinge of anxiety, but that’s fuel for your creative engine.
By controlling the 90 percent that you can, you are more than ready to handle the 10 percent of uncertainty that awaits you.
So the key for you is to control what you can and to dismiss your fear of the rest. Recognize that this fear is what makes you human, and it is this humanity that gives us commonality with all the public speakers and presenters who have come before us.
And it is their advice that we heed to our improvement.
For instance, master J. Berg Esenwein from 109 years ago:
Even when you are quaking in your boots with the ague of fear, and your teeth fain would beat “retreat,” you must assume a boldness you do not feel. For doing this there is nothing like deep stately breathing, a firm look at the dreaded audience . . . . But do not fear them. They want you to succeed, and always honor an exhibition of pluck. They are fair and know you are only one man against a thousand. . . . Look at your audience squarely, earnestly, expressively.
And banish stage fright forever.
Interested in more on how to eliminate presentation stage fright? Click here.