Dealing with stage fright

I had a lot of fun presenting at yesterday’s conference. Reflecting on it, I realized that my presentations are strongly influenced by what people bring to the session. The passion that people like about my presentations comes from the energy that people share with me when they listen and when they share. The insights they walk away with come from other people like them as well as from the people and experiences and thoughts I bring in through my presentation. I’m just there to prepare the stage and spark the conversation. =) Here are some quick tips for energizing presentations and some reflections based on the presentation I gave today.

1. Chat with people before the presentation starts so that you can make personal connections and find out what people are interested in.

2. Always treat it as a dialogue.

3. Turn your presentation into a conversation and learn something new from your audience.

Stage fright – everybody has it

I had one hour left before my presentation at the IBM Regional Technical Exchange in Markham. I couldn’t shake off my anxiety. The words felt heavy in my mouth, and my voice felt strained. The new stories I wanted to add didn’t quite blend in with everything else. My phrasing was off. My energy was off, too–I was having a hard time making the shift from the morning’s introverted-programming mode to the high-energy presentation mode I needed for the afternoon.

I headed over to the refreshments table to make myself a cup of mint tea, snagging a couple of chocolate-macadamia cookies along the way. I was savoring the chewy chocolate cookie when another IBMer walked up to me. She asked if I was anxious about my upcoming talk, and she said that she could never eat when she was nervous. I told her that a couple of cookies are remarkably effective at reducing stress. After my headless chicken impression at the IBM Web 2.0 Summit, I went so far as to pour milk into a glass and dunk cookies into it. (That worked. It’s important to know what works for you.) We chatted briefly about the talk and about some other matters, and she wished me luck on the presentation. I felt my mood start to lift.

By the time I finished my tea and munched through the second cookie, I was ready to set up the room. I plugged in my power supply, fiddled with the video settings, and tested the color scheme (no reds) and all the slides (legible). These little routines help me get into presentation mode.

(Yes, everyone gets stage fright. I think mine comes from the idea that so many people are trusting me with their time! Mine goes away when I start sharing my energy with people and people give it right back (in a good way). Neither my level of preparation nor the aesthetics of my slides matter, although having slides that make me happy helps. Nope, my stage fright depends on whether people in the audience are getting a good deal for their time. =) )

Chat with people

One of the key things that helped me tap presentation energy was chatting with the people waiting for the presentation to start. I really appreciated how people came up to me and wished me luck, or let me engage them in conversation–that helped me calm my stage fright. I made sure to ask a number of people throughout the room what they were interested in. I figured that if I could make those people happy, then I’d probably stand a good chance of making most people in the room happy. If people were interested in the session, then by golly, I was interested in it too! Hearing what a few people were interested in allowed me to see the hundred-something people as individuals and to talk about things in a way that felt (to me, at least) as if I was having a regular conversation (in which I’d feel comfortable making all these side comments). Establishing that initial contact with people throughout the room helped me remember to make eye contact and to talk about different perspectives. After all, you can’t talk to only the front row after you’ve met some people in the back row who are curious about what you want to say. And did I mention that talking to people helped me handle my stage fright?

So the next time you give a presentation, get your setup time out of the way, and spend the rest of the time talking to people who have made an effort to be there early. They’ll give you plenty of ideas, encouragement, and energy, and if you can engage them, you can spread that energy to other people.

Always treat it as a dialogue

Interaction is what makes an real-time presentation different from a recording. The presentation starts off with the energy you bring and the curiosity that people in the audience bring, and it takes shape as people interact with it. When people take the time to attend your presentation in person, give back to them by involving them in it. When you have the ability to see people’s reactions or even engage them in conversation, listen to those people throughout your presentation. You are always in a dialogue, even if you’re doing most of the talking.

How do you do this? You can use the same skills and instincts you use when talking to people one on one. You know how you can tell when someone’s interested or someone’s losing focus, even if they aren’t saying anything? If you focus on presenting to one person at a time, you can listen and adapt just as instinctively, and you’ll talk more naturally too. Just remember that there are lots of other people in the room, so talk to them too. If you’re facing a big audience and you can’t see people, you’ll have to imagine them. Talk to people before your presentation so that you can go into your presentation with a sense of real people in the audience.

Turn your presentation into a conversation

Another thing that makes me excited about presentations is that I know I’m going to learn something new. I love including a lot of discussion in my presentations, and I’m always amazed by what people share. For example, terrific issues and insights came from the audience today. (I’ve got to retell some of those stories!) So I’m not an expert passing on knowledge, but rather as a facilitator who sets the stage and gets the conversation going. When I give larger, less interactive presentations (like that blue horizon 2008 keynote to around seven hundred people!), I like thinking about the internal dialogue people are having with me, even if they can’t raise their hands and share what they’re thinking with everyone else.

Next time you plan a presentation, try adding more dialogue. You need energy and openness in the room to get this going. People need to want to add something, see that they have something to add, and feel that you’re open to it (and you’ll manage the time and the rest of the discussion as necessary). It really helps to have some friendly faces who will take pity on you and jumpstart the conversation if needed. =) Have some backup questions based on what other people might ask you, and feel free to ask the audience questions as well. Most speakers are unnerved by silence (trust me, three seconds of quiet feels like an awfully long time!), but you need to give people time to understand what you’ve said and to think about what they want to say. A teaching tip I picked up before is to count to seven (silently) instead of moving on after just a few seconds. That seven-second gap helps people shift from listening mode to interacting mode, and if you can get people to share, your presentation will really sparkle.

So here are those quick tips again:

1. Chat with people before the presentation starts so that you can make personal connections and find out what people are interested in.

2. You’re always in a dialogue. Listen.

3. Turn your presentation into a conversation and learn something new from your audience.

And don’t forget to have fun! =)

3 responses to “Dealing with stage fright”

  1. Good to know your pitch went well, the RTE circus is coming to Montreal tomorrow. I’m with you in bringing your passion to the stage – I even find I have to tame myself down a little at time, as passionate people can easily get carried away and go on tangents…

    1. Sacha Chua says:

      … and talk too fast, and bounce too much… ;)

      I’m sure you did great! You always do. =)

  2. gary says:

    very insightful! thanks

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