Stage fright, visualization and improvization

“Maybe I should take a break from presenting,” I said, “and focus instead on writing blog posts and articles so that I can build up more material.”

W- nodded. “You have to pace yourself,” he said.

It was Monday morning, and I had a talk scheduled for 3:35 that day: “The A, B, Cs of Boomers, X, Ys, Zs: Reaching Different Generations Through Social Media”. I sent in my slides a week ago, so I didn’t have to worry about that. I knew which stories I wanted to tell, so I didn’t have to worry about that. But I still felt the nagging doubts of stage fright.

I mentally ticked off the remaining talks I’d promised to do: “Awesomest Job Search Ever” at the Social Recruiting Summit, “Making Presentations that Rock” at IBM, and “I.B.Millennials: Working with and Learning from Generation Y” at the IBM Technical Leadership Exchange. If I juggled everything well, I’d be able to do all those talks while keeping my project manager and my manager happy. I’d be doing a talk a week. After conference season, I could take a break, study more, write more, draw more, and experiment more.

First things first. Gotta get through the 3:35 to 5:00 talk. A tough timeslot even in the best of cases–who has energy at the end of the day? But a friend had recommended me to this, and the organizers had said that the nonprofits really needed tips on getting across to generations. I’d given talks like this before, starting with I.B.Millennials at last year’s IBM Technical Leadership Exchange, and ending up with keynote segments on the demographic revolution and the multigenerational workplace. I’d never talked about it in the nonprofit context before, but I’d read a bit about nonprofit marketing, and I hoped that many of the things I learned doing Web 2.0 consulting in the workplace would transfer to the nonprofit sector.

I packed my presentation kit (laptop, power cord, presenter remote, mouse, voice recorder, webcam (just in case), courage) into my rolling case (gotta watch those ergonomics!) and headed out. From previous talks, I had learned that planning nothing else (no project work, no deadlines, nothing) during the day of a presentation really helped me relax because I had enough buffer time to take care of things. Besides, I was curious about the other sessions, and I wanted to pick up whatever I could.

I arrived at the conference centre and snuck into a few sessions. The more I listened, the more I itched to give my own presentation. Part of me listened to the speakers and actively participated in the discussion, while part of me was listening to myself–to snippets and sound bites that might make it into my talk. I took notes on the current session and on how I was rearranging my own.

Do other speakers have this experience? I’m having a hard time describing it because it seems so odd. I hear my own speeches, in my own voice. I can tell that I’m not actually hearing them in person–I don’t hallucinate, if that’s what you’re wondering ;)–but it’s definitely me. I don’t hear the full speech, just little bursts, but that’s enough to convince me that I can do it. Then I roll the words around on my tongue to find out what they feel like, and I know the performance will be fine. By the time the organizer introduces me, I’m ready to discover just how I’m going to get from point A to point B – how we’ll fill in the gaps between those bursts, where the topic and the audience will take me.

That’s one of the reasons why I don’t script my talks as much as other people do, and I don’t include as many slides or talking points as other speakers do. The less text I have on slides, the more flexibility I have. The fewer slides I present, the more flexibility I have. I prepare the bones of a performance: the key message I want to communicate, the key actions I want people to take, the stories that will help people understand what I have to say and then act. The rest comes during those pre-talk visualizations (… audiolizations?), and in the interaction between me and the audience, strengthened by echoes of blog posts I’d written or things I’d said or heard.

This is what it’s like to be up on that stage, and it’s exhilarating. It’s an improvised dance of discovery, where the reactions and questions and comments of the audience help me unlock more stories and ideas, and where we all learn more.

How can I teach other people this? Is this a good start: “Imagine listening to a confident version of yourself give the talk. What does it sound like? What does that feel like?” Can I help people become more comfortable with speaking if I tell them that it’s okay to not know all the details going up, and that discovering the way can be lots of fun? =)

  • http://coevolving.com David Ing

    There’s a big difference between frequent presenters and infrequent presenters.

    The most frequent presenters I know are teachers. They’re up in front of classes every day. Of course they prepare, but it’s not uncommon for the teachers to have decades more experience (and years) than their students.

    I’ve evolved my personal style from teaching to corporate life, although I still bristle at having to script out talks in advance. I recently had to do an internal talk to a senior executive, and reminded myself that my manager (and his manager) were scrubbing my talk to preclude any issues that would come back to haunt us.

    Speaking precisely is always good, and I find that focusing on enunciation helps slow down my talk. (And I’m a native English speaker!)