Like most writers, I’m a pretty introverted person. I am happy pecking away at my keyboard, with only my cat for company, for hours on end. Sometimes, though, I’m invited to speak about my work. You can’t just run away, right? I also do a lot of training for my day job. In fact, I’m on the tail end of six weeks in which I will have presented twelve times. While this is an unusual amount of training in a short period, I have presented hundreds of times, to audiences of up to eight hundred people. It must be easy by now, right?
I still get nervous. Every. Single. Time.
I have, however, developed a few tricks to help me out at this point. In solidarity with my fellow introverts, I offer them up for you.
First, a quick pep talk. I actually think that introverts are better presenters than extroverts. Those who love the spotlight can tend to linger there, even if they don’t have a ton of stuff to say. We introverts are not wasting anyone’s time. We say what we need to say, as clearly and succinctly as possible, and then we sit down. We also are always prepared. If I’m standing up in front of an audience, even if I have delivered this exact talk fifty times, I’m still prepping for it. I never wing a presentation. And trust me, I’ve been in the audiences of presenters who are gregarious and unprepared and those who are quiet but well-prepared, and I’d choose the latter every time. An entertaining presentation that lacks substance is like cotton candy—sweet, but in reality nothing but air. Be a carrot—solid, strong, maybe a little boring, but great for helping you see.
Now for the tips:
I always think through ahead of time my goal for the presentation. What is it that I want people to learn or understand from what I’m saying? Then I organize my presentation in a way that makes logical sense for the audience. What do they need to understand first, then second? I start my presentation with a roadmap, telling them what I’m going to say. I do this because I heard somewhere that whenever we are being presented with new material, a part of our brain is working to understand the overarching structure of the presentation. If we as presenters tell them ahead of time what we’re going to cover when, that part of the brain can relax and just absorb what we’re saying.
In terms of my own notes, I use bullet points instead of a script, because then it flows a little more naturally for me. If I’m really nervous or it’s a new presentation, I may practice writing out what I want to say a few times, but I still will rely only on the bullet points for the actual presentation.
You might consider using props—pictures, cartoons, or physical objects of some kind. They’re a great way to help you loosen up, and pull the focus off yourself for a little bit. Video and audio can also be great, but I tend to steer away from them myself because I don’t trust myself not to mess them up.
On the day of the presentation, give yourself more time than you think you need to get there. Your stress level will already be at eleven, no need to make it worse with unexpected traffic, a wrong turn, or a goat crossing.
Once I’m at the location of the talk, my nerves really go into overdrive. My hands shake, I can’t think straight, I get clumsy. The worst.
Here’s what helps: I find a quiet spot (a bathroom stall is fine) and lock myself in. First, I wiggle/dance/jump around or whatever it takes to work out some energy. Then I take a moment of zen—just breathe in and out for a few minutes. There are some great tips on breathing techniques here. Then I do a quick superhero stance.
Once I feel like I’ve gotten myself under control, I walk into the talk’s location. I spend a few minutes in there getting acclimated. Where will I be standing? Is there a microphone? Is the technology all set up and ready to go? Where’s the clock? Can I see it easily from where I’ll be presenting? If not, I slip off my watch and put it somewhere on the podium or table in front of me—that way, I don’t have to be obvious about checking the time partway through. I don’t use my cell phone clock because it’s a little hard to read, and it will go to sleep unless I remember to tell it not to.
As people start filing into the room, I try to chat up a few who seem nice. This will help later, when the audience starts to seem like a scary wall of judgment—see, there’s that guy who just got back from Jamaica! And the lady with the cute dog!
The Talking Part
Eventually, of course, you’re going to have to get up and speak. It’s not easy, friends. But here’s what I do. Stand, walk to the right spot, and take a breath. In. Out. You may feel like you need to start speaking right away or it’ll be super awkward, but it won’t. Nobody will even notice that you took that second to breathe, but it’ll help you gather yourself.
One of my cheater moves is that I always start my talks by complimenting the audience. What a fun and energetic group! You guys are so smart, I can tell already! I love this town/building/room! This is the best podium I’ve ever seen! I do this because I want them to like me, so that when I later mess up, they find it charming instead of annoying. I have no idea if it works, but I’ve been doing it for years, and I always at least get a few smiles, which gives me the courage to go on.
Speak slower and louder than seems appropriate. Anxiety will make you talk fast and quiet, so with effort, you may end up sounding somewhere approaching normal.
Keep an eye on the time. Unless you are Michelle Obama, no audience wants you to talk for longer than they’ve mentally prepared to hear from you.
If you have a question period at the end, my best tip for you if something stumps you is to repeat the question. “Did everyone hear that? He asked…” Even if everyone clearly did hear him, even if people two towns over heard him, restating the question gives a little time for the hamsters in my brain to scurry around trying to find something to say. If that’s still not enough time, I’ll go back to the questioner, to buy myself a little more. “Did I say that correctly?” (Nod thoughtfully.) Finally, if the hamsters are still empty-handed, I’ll say, “That’s a great question. Here are some of the things I know about your question. Has anyone else got thoughts on this?” There are lots of smart people in your audience, many of whom will be happy to show how smart they are. Let them take some of the pressure off.
I used to finish presentations with a relieved, “So, that’s all I have. Thanks!” Then I took a class on presenting and learned that is not in fact a super effective way to end a presentation. Apparently, you’re supposed to leave your audience with a few takeaways—final words of wisdom, bon mots, or at least a nice picture of a cute bunny. The goal is to end on a high note. I’m still not great at this, but I try.
There you have it, fellow introverts. If you have any questions or tips of your own, leave them in the comments. Thanks for your time and attention! Oh, and one more thing: