It is hard to believe that I was once so shy and introverted that many friends were surprised when I chose to work in the business world as an accountant after graduating from university. They wondered how my sensitive, introverted nature would cope with corporate life.
Indeed, the most difficult aspect of corporate work for me was speaking in public. Mostly, I cleverly managed to avoid having to do it – though of course I didn’t avoid the fear, worry and anxiety surrounding it.
Then I moved to a more senior role in the charity sector as an accountant in the head office of the Red Cross South Asia regional delegation. Although one might imagine ‘charity work’ as less pressurised, this certainly wasn’t the case for me as part of my remit was presenting the financial situation of each project in the region at six-monthly meetings!
These meetings, in most beautiful parts of South Asia, used to ruin my life. Not only would I worry about them well in advance, hoping for success, I would berate myself for weeks afterwards for ‘failing’ yet again. All this turmoil while knowing that very soon I would have to go through it all again.
Then, there was the one time that I gave a better presentation. I had no idea how it happened; it just seemed to be lucky chance, and I never managed to replicate. Now, many years later, as a voice and communications expert, I can see that I had happened to alight on some of the strategies I now recommend to my clients who are seeking to improve their public-speaking skills. I would love to share them here so that you, too, can learn to give a successful presentation.
1. Let go of perfection
So what was different about this regular six-monthly meeting? I had been chatting and laughing with colleagues during a break when my boss asked me if I would give my presentation immediately following break rather than later in the day as planned. Without thinking, I said yes, of course – and within seconds the familiar sensations of panic came.
I had not prepared all my visual material, so with shaking hand, I quickly wrote some notes on a flip chart in the few minutes before everyone reassembled.
My boss introduced me and thanked me for agreeing to speak early, with no notice, even though I hadn’t completed my preparations. This somehow gave me a freedom and released me from my perceived obligation to be perfect.
Now, I can see that the need to be perfect locks us up. If we have decided we need to ‘get it right’, part of our mind is constantly monitoring our performance, checking in to see how perfect or how ‘right’ we are. When we let go of perfection, all of that energy that was spent checking up on us is available for the presentation.
2. Don’t lose you
Often when we give a talk, we get ‘lost’ in the audience. Sometimes, just looking at and seeing all those faces is enough to disorientate us.
What I came to realise more recently is that when I was to give a presentation, I would be really focussed on it for an hour or two beforehand, even while others were presenting. I would be wondering what everyone would say, to my face and behind my back, when I gave another ‘bad’ presentation and all the while hoping I could somehow avoid it!
But not this time. Rather than anxiously ruminating, I had been laughing and joking with everyone at the break and I still had that energy with me when I went to speak. I was somehow still connected to the authentic me, and hadn’t had time to invent the ‘me’ who gives important presentations.
To help stay or reconnect with yourself, plant your feet firmly on the ground, maybe a little bit wider apart than you would normally and breathe deeply into your abdomen. This has the effect of making sure you are really present and grounded and keeps you with your own experience.
At the same time as this, I would recommend expanding outwards so that you are aware of what is going on beyond the room you are in. This allows you to be present, without getting overwhelmed by all the people in the audience.
3. Be playful, be you
As I said, I had just been talking at the break, laughing and joking with the national and the international staff and I brought this somewhat playful energy into the presentation.
I’m not suggesting that you start making jokes, particularly if your subject is serious. It is more about avoiding the tendency to adopt a different persona when we give public talks, which can make us sound a bit like a textbook or our mother or even our father!
Nowadays, I suggest asking a simple question, “Who am I being?” when you find yourself suddenly sounding like your mother or your schoolteacher! This question ‘brings you back to you’. Of course, you are good at being you, so your presentation is likely to be successful.
4. Stay connected with the audience
I was able to keep my connection with the audience from the break and into my presentation. A lot of people in the audience were really supporting me. I could feel them ‘rooting’ for me when I started and almost celebrating with me as I spoke so much better than usual.
Often when people give talks, they choose one of two ways of being, neither of which is particularly effective. When people are nervous, they tend to not be very present with their audience – understandably, as they would rather be anywhere else other than up front! This lack of presence makes it hard for the audience to engage with what the speaker is saying and sometimes even hard to hear the speaker.
The other approach that many people choose is to ‘push’ what they want to say at their audience. This tends to be tiring for the presenter and it often leads to resistance and even ‘tuning out’ in the audience.
What I now recommend is different from what most people do and that is to ‘pull energy’. You can do this by imagining a thread from behind your audience, through your audience, through you to behind you. Doing this keeps your audience engaged and makes it easy for you to connect with them.
Don’t worry if this sounds a bit strange or mysterious. It is something that many great performers do naturally and is something that you can learn.
I hope that these strategies that I stumbled on accidentally are useful to you in creating the success you desire and deserve with public speaking and with your career.
Fiona Cutts is a communications coach, linguist and facilitator for Right Voice for You, a special program by Access Consciousness. During her career as an accountant and auditor, Fiona struggled with an intense fear of public speaking and presentation delivery. As a Right Voice for You facilitator, she draws upon that experience to help others liberate themselves from fear and judgment, and unleash their confident and authentic voice. You can learn more at www.fionacutts.com.