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Fear is the Key

By Jonathan Haigh.
Published in Management Decision, Volume 32, Number 6 1994


'Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' asked the White Rabbit. 'Begin at the beginning,' the King said, gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'
Sound advice that, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll wasn't specifically referring to making presentations when he wrote it, but it is nevertheless a particularly apt quotation for starting this article. Because the art of giving a good presentation starts from the very first moment you realise you are going to have to speak in front of other people......
What is the first thought that goes through your mind? If it's something along the lines of "Oh, no! I hate presenting," then you share your reaction with thousands, if not millions, of others. Surveys consistently put speaking in public near the top of the list of people's worst fears - those things that make you wake up in a cold sweat if you have been dreaming about them. But like it or not, you are probably going to have to face those fears sooner or later, and it may as well be sooner rather than later.
So the first thing to do is to stop for a second and reflect on your initial reaction and start the process of being truthful. (And even if the very idea of presenting doesn't give you the heebie jeebies, then it's still worth doing this, you may be limiting yourself in other ways). Check you are not using one of the common ways of overstating things, for example: exaggeration - "I always stumble over my words"; preconception - "They'll hate it, they always do"; avoidance - "John presents well, I'll get him to do it"; unrealistic expectations - "This one just has to be perfect"; absolutes - "I am awful/brilliant at presenting".
Then challenge your reaction and ask "Is this really true? Do I always do that. Is it bound to go wrong? Did the audience notice?" Then replace the thought with a more realistic one "Maybe I have stumbled once, but that doesn't mean I will again. Not all the audience hated it, one person just happened to disagree with part of it. It doesn't have to be perfect, I just need to get the main points across as well as I can." If you are still having trouble doing this, get a colleague who you trust, to give you an honest appraisal of your past performance, concentrating on what went well and, finally, remember that the audience don't know what you are going to say, so, in general, they will not notice on the odd occasion when you 'make a mistake'.
'Begin at the beginning,' the King said, gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'
Once you have got yourself in a positive frame of mind, you can go on to prepare what you have to say. Here, it doesn't really matter how you organise your thoughts, as long as you do, and preferably not just five minutes before you start speaking!
To help you envisage what you are trying to achieve here, consider a traditional "well- constructed" play in the theatre. These are plays that critics describe as having a beginning, a middle and an end. Very broadly, what they mean by this is: first we see the characters in some sort of status quo (the beginning); something happens to upset or change that position (the middle); finally, we see how the characters have been altered and a new status quo is established (the end). It is usually also the playwright's intention that the audience will undergo some sort of change and view the world differently after the experience.
Something similar happens during a presentation. The idea is to take the audience with you on a journey, from where they are now, to where you want them to be at the end - hopefully changed in some way. How you want them to be changed is what provides you with your objective, even if it is as simple as getting them to remember something they did not know before. And how you decide to make the journey - the logical steps along the way - is what gives you the structure of your talk.
The challenge for you as a presenter is that the audience has free will and can choose not to be influenced, or decide not to listen. Therefore, decisions about the objective and the structure cannot be taken in isolation. They have to be realistically achievable, and must take the audience into account. In other words, you need to ask the question, "Can I expect this audience to follow me along every step of the way, or am I going too far too fast? Or too slowly? Am I giving them a strong enough reason to keep listening?" Of course, the answer will be different for different audiences - you would not expect to give the same presentation to unemployed teenagers as to the board of a multinational company.
'Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.
'I do,' Alice hastily replied; 'at least - at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing, you know.'
'Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter.
In terms of presenting, saying what you mean and meaning what you say are separate issues. The first is important when you are preparing the presentation, deciding what you want to say and whether the words you have chosen actually mean this to your particular audience. And don't forget that, if you write a script, what you are writing will be spoken; it needs simpler words and sentences, with a good deal of repetition and thoughts joined by 'and' and 'but' rather than using complex structures with multiple clauses.
The second issue, meaning what you say, is really at the heart of presenting. This is the part which sorts the sheep from the goats, the stars from the chorus. This is where being truthful is so important. To quote Lewis Carroll again:
'Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.'
'Meaning what you say' is about committing yourself to the sense, the idea, of what you are saying and transmitting that commitment to the audience. It's about being honest with them, not hiding, and above all, being yourself.
For most speakers, this is not as simple as it sounds. I suspect that this may be a contentious assertion, but let's consider the evidence for a moment.
Let's start by comparing two actors in a soap opera on television. One actor is highly experienced, and has been doing the show for years. The public has grown to associate the role with the actor and are completely convinced that he or she is the character. The other actor is perhaps not so experienced, and has been given a small role where he comes up against the soap star. Spot the difference. It's difficult to put our finger on it, but there's something about the new character that does not quite work, it does not ring true. So we might just feel a bit uncomfortable, or, in a more extreme case, say "He can't act for toffee." The point is that somewhere along the line, we have lost some of the truth of the situation.
It's a similar sort of feeling that we get when we are faced with an 'average' presenter. Sometimes, the uneasiness that everything is not quite right is barely perceptible. We even might not notice it consciously at all, unless another, better speaker was presenting just before or afterwards. But the uneasiness is there, and it interferes with the amount of attention we are prepared to pay to the speaker.
So, what is actually happening when the audience is not completely convinced about a speaker? What can an average presenter do to make the audience more comfortable? Let's leave aside for the moment the possibility that he or she actually is lying, apart from to advise you not to try it unless you are a highly proficient deceiver - most audiences can spot people being economical with the truth a mile off!
To come back to Mr or Ms Average, talking to a typical business audience. Why aren't they more convincing? There are a number of reasons.
First, starting with the obvious - because they are not paying attention to the sense of what they are saying. This is undoubtedly the commonest problem, and is also the easiest one to put right. What happens is that the presenter gets involved in doing something other than transmitting the meaning of what they are saying.
For example, they might be reading from a script and get hung up about losing their place. Or they could be so nervous that their only goal is to finish the presentation as soon as possible. Or they might be worrying about handling the visual aids, or the questions at the end, or any one of hundreds of little things. When things like this start happening to you, take a deep breath and pause for a moment. The deep breath helps you to relax and the pause gives you time. Time to remember why you are talking. What is your overall objective? Why did you include the next part of your presentation? Focus on that and then take another breath and continue. (It's like the stereotypical 'method' actors, who always need to know their motivation for the line they are about to say - it maybe a bit of a cliché, but it works.) This is what I mean by the idea of taking care of the sense. The sounds - the expression in your voice, the variation of pace, pitch and volume - will take care of themselves if you are clear in your intention at all times.
Finally, we come to what in some ways is the simplest piece of advice for giving a good presentation, and in other ways the most difficult: be yourself. Don't be shy about showing the audience who you are. In other words, be assertive.
Being assertive means neither being aggressive, nor too passive, trying to hide in some way. It's partly about what you say: not apologising continuously, nor telling the audience to shut up and listen. But it's more about the way in which you say things. And it tends to show up in your posture and body language.
Briefly, let's consider an aggressive speaker. What, typically, do they do which gets in the way of the message? Perhaps it's best to consider an example: Neil Kinnock. He can be a wonderful, inspiring orator, especially if you hear him on the radio, but watch him give a speech on television. Suddenly you see the aggressive body language, the jabbing finger, the triumphal raised fist and, in my opinion, it devalues the passion and commitment of what he is saying.
What about the passive, non-assertive speaker? There are many ways in which this comes out. Being too quiet, mumbling, fading away at the ends of sentences, hiding behind the lectern, standing sideways on, inhibited gestures, rigidity, defensive stance, being "a presenter" - these are some of the most common aspects. At the heart of it these are all about fear, fear of looking daft in some way, fear of people seeing just how scared you are, fear of nobody listening and so on. This is perfectly normal. Even the most confident looking presenter feels some fear, some nervousness. It is actually quite useful for giving a presentation a degree of sharpness. The point is that the confident presenter does not let the fear get in the way of what they are doing.
So, how do we handle all those fears that beset us when we present. It is a similar process to the one I suggested at the beginning. The first thing is to admit them (which is not always as easy as it sounds). Try writing down sentences which start: 'The thing I fear most about presenting is .......' Then challenge those statements: are they exaggerated in any way? Then come up with more truthful versions of the statement. For example: 'People don't usually laugh at what I do, so there's no reason why they should when I'm presenting.' Keep reminding yourself of the new statement, it will take time to break old ways of thinking. Then go out there and try presenting and take a few small risks. For example, if you are very static, try moving about a little. See how it feels. Each time you rehearse (yes, rehearse, it really helps!) or present, try stretching yourself a little more. OK, it will feel a bit scary, but when you have done it a couple of times and you haven't fallen over, people haven't laughed and, in fact, they have complimented you on your presentation, then perhaps you will begin to wonder what you were afraid of in the first place. And now you can get on with being yourself, concentrating on getting your message across, rather than dealing with your fears.
What I have tried to show in this article is that what makes an effective presentation is a strong objective that is appropriate for the audience, delivered with commitment and truthfulness. The main thing that gets in the way of this process is getting wrapped up in other issues, usually as a result of some level of fear. And the best way to deal with the fears is to be truthful about them and then to break them down in small easy to manage steps.
I have now reached the end, and so am about to stop, but will leave you with a final thought from Lewis Carroll, which is applicable to you and your fears:
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'
It's your decision.

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