In my career, I imagine I have given over 1,000 public presentations. As a former fundraiser and current professional communications & DEI strategist, it is a part of my reality. At least twice a week, every week, for the last 17+ years I have stood before or video conferenced in for crowds big and small to relay the mission and vision of an organization I deeply believe in, or to advocate for a big idea, and present compelling data analysis.
In the last two-and-a-half years, many of us were unexpectedly relegated to a home office and mountains of screen time. This meant that common in-person presentations were conducted from the comfort of home, behind a screen, and with the aid of copious notes — sometimes in pajama bottoms. I directly experienced this shift.
As a communications strategist, I spend 50% of my time pitching ideas to others and presenting information to influence decisions, change minds, and drive business. I welcomed the comfort of pitching and presenting on a screen and in my home with notes because I am a deep introvert and it takes all my energy to present. Being home alleviated some level of pressure and calmed my public speaking anxiety (which few people believe I experience, but I do). As many workplaces reopen their doors, the return to the office means a return to in-person pitching and presentations.
Like me, many of you likely face similar phobias and need practical tips to get back into practice. And certainly, many of you can resonate with the atrophy of once common skills that feels more poignant during the unprecedented times COVID-19 has thrust upon all of us.
A few months ago, I found myself in a familiar situation, prepping my mind with notes for an in-person presentation. Of the 1,000 instances of this act, I can count on my two hands the times I was anxious to the point of hives, sweaty palms, dry mouth, etc. We know the tell-tale signs of “fear of public speaking” syndrome. I found myself perplexed by the sudden set of nerves I rarely had to deal with. Here is what I think happened: for years I had a solid routine for these in-person presentations, then COVID-19 hit and shifted those norms, my ritual was simpler on-screen, and I welcomed the disruption. My mind was not excited to return to the elaborate ritual of prepping for in-person presentations. Cue hyperactive anxiety.
Here are some elements of my public speaking ritual I employ when I find myself teetering on the edge of a public speaking meltdown:
- Learn to love the sound of your voice: I record my every line on my smartphone using the Otter.ai app, the day before and then fall asleep to my own voice on a loop. I am not kidding. Your subconscious mind is more powerful than you often think.
- Wonder Woman pose, smile through it: Many of you have heard of “power posing” and it really works to boost confidence (as one of many speaker tools): stand in the bathroom mirror, hands on hips like Wonder Woman and repeat an affirmation (or two or 10), then smile at yourself. The confidence boost is real people -– don’t knock it until you try it.
- Hands at side: No fig leaf! You are not Adam or Eve and there is no garden here. Rest your hands at your side, palms lightly touching your thighs, unless your hands are making meaningful gestures. It may seem more comfortable to fold your hands or hold them at the front, but try your hands at your side a few times and it will boost your confidence and it makes you appear more confident to the audience watching.
- Write it out before bed: I don’t advocate for note cards when giving presentations, in fact it is a huge pet peeve of mine. Sorry, not sorry. However, I am still very analog as many professionals are. I recall things more aptly when I find time to write them out by hand in a notebook and review. Something about my own handwriting sticks in my mind, and in the heat of the moment I have flashes of the words and content and it helps get me through a presentation amidst nerves. Research also shows that people who study before bed increase their long-term retention by 50%.
- Make a human connection beforehand: I arrive a few minutes early and introduce myself to some of the crowd. One trick I have found works is this, I find a pair of shoes I love and I compliment that person, here is how it plays out: “Hi there, I love the shade/material/etc of those shoes, where did you find them?!” Immediately, the person smiles and tells me the story of their shoes, we usually laugh and I have a made a friend and a connection with a crowd member, a friendly face to find later during the presentation. This helps me in two ways: 1) endorphins – something magical happens when you make a genuine connection with someone over a shared interest, 2) I have a genuine face I know to find at any point during the presentation, it is comforting in very real ways.
Many times, the simplicity of having a ritual is what gets us through hard things, like public speaking. I hope these tips, aid you in setting yourself up for success with your own personalized ritual. What tips would you add?
Amira Barger is executive vice president, Health DEI at Edelman.