You Need to Give a Presentation and You’re Terrified. That’s Normal.

December 12, 2013

Anxiety is entirely normal when it’s your turn to give a presentation. If you accept that, and plan around it by structuring your talk in outline and as a coherent story, you’ll do just fine.

Your Audience is Not a Lynch Mob

Matt Haughey, perhaps best known as the founder of Metafilter, addressed this brilliantly in a recent piece for Medium. Every bit is worth reading, but I’d be remiss not to share this passage in full:

Credit Mike FisherThink about this: is having 30 or 300 or 3,000 pairs of eyes staring at you from the darkness while you stand alone on stage good for you? Deep down, you know it’s bad right? Did you ever stop to think why that is? I have heard this hypothesis from lots of people but in the normal course of human existence, any more than 5 or 6 pairs of eyes on you means trouble. If there are 300 pairs of eyes looking at you, you are about to be ambushed — you are someone’s dinner.

“They’re not lions and you’re not a zebra separated from the pack,” Haughey writes, “they’re all monkeys and you’re the prettiest monkey and they desperately want you to tell them where the best bananas are located that will turn them into pretty monkeys as well.”

Okay, yes, that’s silly. Deliberately so. Haughey makes an excellent point, however, about the fears we experience when we give a presentation. The idea of being exposed and judged in front of a crowd is terrifying – but that’s not what’s happening to you, is it? You’ve been asked to speak because you know something and the people in your audience want to know it, too.

You’re not there to be judged, or lynched, or ambushed. You’re out in front, alone, because you know something they don’t.

That doesn’t make you dinner. That makes you a teacher.

Credit audio luci storeEven professionals get nervous. I’ve met very few stage actors – people who crave audiences, who build their lives around opportunities to perform – who aren’t nervous before a production. Sweaty palms are the least of their troubles; one actor of my acquaintance can’t sleep properly for days before an opening, while another confessed to cold-sweating nightmares of failure every night of an engagement.

Remember, these people do this for a living. It’s perfectly reasonable for an engineer to get some serious butterflies when they have to give a presentation.

Structure is Your Friend: Organize, Don’t Memorize

That said, nervousness can still knock you off your game when you give a presentation. One moment, you’re in control, and the next? System Halt.

That happens to everyone. Not to pick on actors too much, but check the outtakes from any of your favorite television series or movies. Even professionals go blank, stutter, or get lost, on occasion. What makes the difference is how quickly you recover. For that, structure is your best friend.

Don’t memorize your speech – or, at least, don’t just memorize your speech. Organizing your presentation both in its literal content and overall form is far more important.

Credit Kheel Center, Cornell UniversityImagine your task is to memorize and recite a series of random numbers. If you get lost between n and n + 1, there’s no underlying logic to set you back on track. You’re left to grope around in your short term memory and hope for the best.

Now, instead, what if your task is to recite a Fibonacci sequence, or the streets you pass in your morning commute. With logic at hand to derive the next term in the series, losing your place goes from disaster to a recoverable failure – one your audience probably won’t even notice.

There are two ways to apply this structure to your presentation. The first is through outlining a list of main ideas and highlights you memorize as a road map through your talk. “I’ve talked about x and hit points a, b, and… Right, got it.” As you gain experience, you’ll notice your outlines become less detailed; a list of keywords and topic sentences will often suffice.

This is broadly similar to one of the most potent memorization tools in anyone’s toolkit – the Journey Method, or Roman Room. Taking a disconnected series of facts and tying them to an underlying logic makes recovering from errors much easier.

The second – and even more useful – is to give a presentation by telling a story.

Don’t Lecture Me, Tell Me a Story

Haughey touches on this in the above article, as well, but Chris Anderson (TED curator) illustrates this particular point quite well in How to Give a Killer Presentation. Framing your presentation as a story, or a conversation, gives you a powerful underlying logic to lean on and pulls your audience along for the ride.

The simplest form of story structure is the three act model, and Billy Wilder is credited with the simplest statement of that structure:

  • Chase the hero up a tree
  • Set the tree on fire
  • Get them down

There’s a lot more to it, but story structure is an obsession I’ll indulge elsewhere. In engineering presentations, the flow might go a little like this:

  • Frame the problem with an anecdote: One day this thing happened and caused major headaches. It happened because oldWidgetName is prone to failureType.
  • Sketch out your solution: Because we’re really good at this, we figured out that failureType won’t happen if you use our newWidgetName, instead. It’s better in all kinds of ways.
  • Return to and complete the anecdote: Now headaches like that won’t happen and everyone involved is quantitatively happier.

Credit Lucas MatielloIt’s not exactly three acts, nor will it apply every time you give a presentation, but the form will do for an armature. Try grabbing different narrative templates – Freytag’s pyramid is a viable model, as is Dan Harmon’s eight-point cycle – and seeing which best suit your subject.

Just don’t picture your audience in their underwear. Trust me, that never works.

Add your personal anecdote to the comments, if you have one.