Overcoming nerves to give an engaging presentation

August 26, 2015 Ian S

How a practice-based coaching session can help overcome the barriers to a perfect presentation

When it comes to standing up in front of a room full of people, we are our own worse enemies. Our nerves can often get the better of us, a voice in our head tells us we are not interesting, we can start to misinterpret the body language of each audience member, we lose the thread of what we are saying, we fidget, essentially we put too much pressure on ourselves.

It doesn't help anyone who wants to overcome these barriers if a tutor, manager, coach or mentor just tells you what the problem is and gives their opinion on how to do it better. If anything, it makes matters much worse.

With a practice-based learning approach, the tutor guides the student through a series of practical exercises designed to help the individual understand the root cause of their presentation issues. Behaviours stems from a mindset, so until we understand the negative mindset, we can never move forward and develop a more positive attitude towards presentation. Experiencing the change helps us to see what we can do to improve.

Here are some key themes and activities I might include in a practical, interactive session:

1. Understanding the behaviours that impact on presentation quality. One of the main objectives for this session will be to raise individual awareness of confidence, assertive communication, nerves, mindsets, attitudes and self fulfilling prophecies. With a combination of demonstration and drama exercises alongside an in-depth coaching conversation, I help the student to ‘feel’ the things that can get in the way of an effective presentation and consider ways to keep control of the content and the audience. I ask what assumptions the presenter makes about the audience and what do the audience really want from a presenter.

2. Story telling and the art of using narrative to enhance presentation.

I use a number of interactive exercises to develop the skills needed to take their audience along for a journey. By challenging the students to experience the difference between just following pre-prepared text and thinking on their feet, they are encouraged to improvise around subjects that they are not experts on to free them up and allow them to feel that successful presentations are not just about “what is the message?” but also “How is the message delivered?” I also demonstrate the power of painting pictures for the audience and inspiring with a vision.

3. Body Language and the Voice.

Using a combination of demonstrations and interactive exercises, I “bring to life” why a presenter needs to be aware of their verbal and non-verbal communication. We look at the contrasts of different vocal deliveries (e.g. loud/soft, fluid/jerky, musical/monotone, fast/slow, etc), at the importance of emphasis and choice of words, the effect of body position on the voice and the power of eye contact. I might set students the challenge of sight-reading a piece of unknown text out loud with a raised awareness of their body language and voice.

4. Personal Impact and Owning the Space.

Building on some of the group exploration of behaviours in section one, I have a number of exercises that help the students to practice in a fun way how to have a positive impact on a group of people when entering a room and delivering information. I also introduce some visualization exercises to help develop the confidence needed to face these challenges and ‘kill the fear’ created by nerves.

5. Memory and Concentration.

I can help students to adopt strategies that will help them to remember what they want to say and encourage them to think about whether over-detailed notes, queue cards, power-point or other aide memoire help them to engage with their audience. I revisit the effectiveness of storytelling and thinking in pictures and ask delegates to consider how this can help them remember. I also bring lots of “tricks” and “tips” that can aid concentration when faced with a room full of distractions.

6. Preparing content and influencing strategies.

I encourage the students to consider how the content of a presentation should be structured and what they have seen that has proved most effective in the past. I set-up an interactive exercise which emphasizes how important it is for the presenter to know your audience. I demonstrate how different people take in information in different ways and how an audience is made up of a diverse group of individuals who will be engaged by different aspects of a presentation. I might use humour as an example of how an influencing strategy should be part of preparation for a presentation.

7. Simulated formal presentation.

To put learning into context at the end of a series of coaching sessions, I try to create a simulated environment where the student prepares a presentation task and to deliver it to a room full of strangers. After the presentation, the presenter will have to think on their feet and answer questions. The exercise will not be about the content of the presentation but will focus on the delivery of the student and how effectively they applied some of the learning. During this very challenging exercise, the 'strangers' will offer their comments on what they experienced as the audience and a one-to-one review session will follow during which the student will reflect on the thoughts, feelings and behaviours they inhabited during the presentation.

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