Stage Fright in Business Presentations

William Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”

In order to land a big account, David would be pitching his presentation in a couple of hours. Then his boss came to him and said the presentation was moved up – to now. David is confident enough and has no nervous feelings about giving the speech to his prospective client as he has done this same presentation at least 100 times before.

Whether giving your presentation as a formal keynote address at a conference or as an informal dialogue with a customer at a conference table, your reputation is on the line. Many people suffer throughout their careers with the fear of public speaking. Some have succeeded for years at avoiding giving presentations, and others could not as it is a part of their jobs.

Called fear of public speaking, stage fright, speech anxiety, or performance anxiety, it affects thousands of careers moving forward in getting a promotion and in getting work accomplished. Stage fright is the fear of feeling nervous and uncomfortable in front of others. Stage Fright is still the #1 fear in America. According to a human resource survey reported in 2005, approximately 15% of employed persons are highly apprehensive about communicating orally in organizational settings.

Some people are born with the skills, the talent, and the ability to be a total extrovert and give a speech or presentation at the drop of a hat. Most of us cannot do that, even though we may consider ourselves as extroverted. Practically everyone – about 85% of the population, in fact – experiences “stage fright” when they give a speech. Being in the spotlight is not what most people wanted, even though they may fantasize about it.

In contrast to David, Darlene, a 32-year-old sales manager, was about to give her sales presentation to a potentially large prospect when she began to experience what actors have long called stage fright or performance anxiety. She had started out preparing for this presentation with a 20-page manuscript, and finally was able to pare it to 10 to 15 index cards. And she still was extremely nervous about the actual presentation in front of the prospective client. After experiencing this anxiety over the presentation, she decided that she needed to do something about since she had just been promoted and giving presentations is part of her new job.

Stage fright is usually a fear of how others will judge our performance and perhaps even judge us as individuals. It can start minutes, hours, or days before that important performance. The doubts start to occupy your thoughts and your body feels the tension and fear. You may notice an increase in your heart rate, sweaty palms, shaky hands, dry throat, and you know the rest.

When it comes to public speaking, there are several categories of people:

o About 5% of the population do not fear speaking in public at all and actually look forward to it in many cases. If you are in this 5%, you need not read any farther.

o Another 10% are apprehensive about speaking in public, but do not have a real fear of it.

o However, the vast majority of us (about 80%) have a mild to serious fear of speaking in public; we don’t do it unless we have to and we tend to minimize the opportunities to speak in public if at all possible;

o Then there are about 5% of us who have an excessive and debilitating fear of speaking in public.

Public speaking is a common source of stress for almost everyone. Many of us would like to avoid this problem entirely, but this is hard to do. This even holds true for extroverts in sales positions. Most people have a fear of getting up in front of an audience to give a presentation. Sometimes this can present such problems as missed business opportunities, lost clients, and even being passed over for promotions that can cost you tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars over your career.

The following strategies will help in improving your presentation skills.

1. Practice, practice, practice: Spend a few minutes every day, including the day of your presentation, practicing what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Practice alone – that way you can recite it out loud and the information will become more familiar to you. Pretend you are just chatting with a group of friends.

Memorize your opening and closing statements so you can recite them on autopilot if you have to. Even if you know your material very well, practice is extremely important. The more you give a talk, the easier it becomes.

2. Visualization: Imagine yourself walking confidently up to the front of your audience as they applaud. Imagine yourself speaking successfully as you concentrate that you are a good speaker. Imagine how you will feel from the results of your presentation – the positive feedback, landing the big account, getting the promotion. Imagine this over and over from the time you are assigned the talk until moments before you are to present, and then again after the presentation is over to keep this feeling with you.

3. Know your material: If you are not familiar with your material or are uncomfortable with it, your nervousness will increase. Practice your speech or presentation and revise it until you can present it with ease. Know what you are talking about. Do your homework on the subject! Knowing more gives you the self-confidence you need to give your speech and answer questions afterwards. Make an outline. Then replace your outlined pages with index cards. Eventually, you will only need one 3X5 index card, and with experience, you will not even need the one card.

4. Focus on three main points: Remember, all your audience wants from you is to walk away with a few key points that will make a difference to them. Learn as much as you can about your audience, what you want to say to them, and say it. Structure your talks to deliver these few points, and as a result, you can avoid a lot of complexity that is not really needed. Do not deliver mountains of facts or details to give your audience. Many studies have shown that people remember very few of the facts or information speakers convey. While you may choose to include lots of facts and information, to be successful, you only need to talk about two or three main points. If you want, depending on your topic, your entire talk can be about on one key point.

During your speech ask questions, if possible, to your audience in order to give them a participatory feeling. This also gives your audience a chance to ask you questions about those points pertinent to them. One-quarter to one-half of your speech should be a discussion with the audience. That way it will not look or feel as much like a speech. This should make your job as a speaker much easier and a more comfortable experience too!

5. Relax before speaking: There are a few factors you need to think about and some not do. These include:

o Don’t apologize for being nervous. Most of the time, your nervousness will not show at all. If you don’t say anything about it, nobody will notice. If you mention your nervousness or apologize for any problems you think you may be having, you are drawing the attention of the audience to this negative aspect instead of letting them focus on the speech itself, which is why they are there.

o Turn nervousness into positive energy. Even the most seasoned of speakers can feel uneasy or anxious. Take a few long, deep breaths. Harness your energy into being enthusiastic and comfortable about the topic of your presentation.

o Positive eye contact and movement. Use your body language with gestures and facial expressions to your advantage. Do not stare or look up to the ceiling or down to the floor, or stare at any one person in your audience. Instead, scan your eyes over them while you are speaking. This will help ease your discomfort, and make them feel as if they are an important part of what you are saying.

o Remind yourself of the benefits. It is important for your audience to receive the information you’ll be offering them. Thinking about this takes the responsibility off you and puts it on the subject that they need to learn about.

6. Use resources: To improve further on your presentations or speeches, especially for your career, you can join an organization such as Toastmasters, which will help you improve upon all facets of communication skills. Or you can hire speech coach who will help you the same way except on an individual basis.