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Five Tips for Great Presentations When You Fear Public Speaking

Updated on March 16, 2017
Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty is a writer and designer who has endured and tackled public speaking fears and has developed tricks to help herself survive and shine.

Your professor has just announced that the whole class will have to do mandatory presentations at some point throughout the semester and it's worth a large chunk of your grade. Oh dear, Lord, no. Please no. Why does every professor insist on making you do a presentation? Instantly your stomach flips and all the butterflies that were calm a moment ago are suddenly flapping their wings like crazy and throwing up everywhere. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?

Stop. Breathe. Evaluate.

You can do this. Trust me, I've been in that exact position many times and I think I've learned the secrets to pulling off a great presentation even though your insides are quivering like a feather in a wind storm.

The first thing that I want to say is that it is okay to feel nervous or even afraid of public speaking. In a world led by extroverts it can often feel like there's something wrong with us if we don't fully embrace the idea of putting ourselves out in the public eye, but there is nothing wrong with being introverted. And there's nothing wrong with being scared of public speaking, you're not alone. Getting up in front of people, and directly addressing them, is not easy and it's not something to be taken lightly. But the fact of the matter is that public speaking shows up many times throughout our lives, whether it's at school, at work, or even at a wedding when we have to make a toast, and we have to be able to do it. The trick is not to change yourself to meet the expectations of public speaking, but to change the speech or presentation to meet your strengths and needs.

Be Brave and Bold. Go First.

The first, and best, suggestion I have for doing any speech or presentation is that you should volunteer, or sign up, to go first.

Wait! Before you give up on me, hear me out. Trust me, going first is the best way to handle any presentation for three reasons.

1.) It gets it done and out of the way at the beginning of the semester, which means while everyone else is stressing every week because their day to present gets closer and closer, you're already done!

2.) Most everyone in your class is as nervous as you are to present. You can use their nerves to your advantage because while you're up there giving your speech there's a very good chance that they aren't even paying attention. At most they have maybe one ear tuned in to you because the rest of their brain is making mental notes about their own presentation. What they should do, how they can postpone it, can they pretend to be sick that day? See? They aren't even listening.

3.) Presenting first means that there is no one you have to live up to. You, quite literally, set the benchmark for all the presentations that come after you. Being first removes any added, unnecessary pressure to try to be bigger and better than the person who went before you.

I didn't realize the immense relief about being the first person to present until my second semester in college. I had an English class that required everyone to explicate a song that fit into one of three categories (Growing Up and Growing Older, It's Complicated: Women and Men, and Social (In)justice) and for some reason I decided that I didn't want to spend the semester in fear, so I signed up for the Growing Up and Growing Older section, which was the first group to present. As soon as I signed up, I was in panic mode. What was I doing? The first presentation would have to be done in the next couple weeks of class! I held my ground and told my anxiety to buzz off. I picked my song (John Mayer's "83"), listened to it on repeat, printed the lyrics, and started to have fun with the explication. Before I realized it, I knew my explication inside and out. When the first day of presentations came, my professor asked for volunteers to go first and before I could stop myself my arm shot into the air. I was not only going to be part of the first group, but I was literally the very first person presenting for the entire semester. That's nuts! I got up there, handed out the printed lyrics, started my presentation, and finished by playing the song for the class on my professor's CD player (I know, I know, I'm old...what's a CD?). Not only did I knock the presentation out of the park, but after I was done and back in my seat, the sense of complete relief I felt was absolutely euphoric. That probably sounds like hyperbole, but I swear I was on a cloud. I remember looking around the room every class session after that day and feeling relieved that I wasn't freaking out about having to present like some of my classmates were. It felt great.

And in reference to my third point above, about not having to live up to anyone else's presentation, there were two girls in my class who presented their song together whose burned CD wouldn't even play at all. So right out of the gate they were a mess because playing the song was kind of an important part of the presentation. Can you imagine how freaked out I would have been had I seen that happen to someone before I presented? I would have been worried about technical malfunctions along with being up in front of everyone. As I sat in my seat, being done with my presentation for the semester, I said a silent thank you to myself for going first.

Have Creative Aides and Examples

My second suggestion for giving a killer presentation is all about visual and auditory aides.

Teachers love visual aides during presentations. If you have charts, graphs, slides, photos, or videos you're already ahead of the game. How do aides help you with your fear of presenting? While helping your presentation, they also provide, what can feel like, a bit of an audience distraction. If you're like me, it's the idea of all eyes on you that causes the nerves to stand on high alert, so by using a power point, or video to help with the presentation, it creates some breathing room while you're up in front of the class where it doesn't feel like everyone is staring at you...because they're not! They are watching your interesting video, or looking at your awesome pie chart.

I once had to give a presentation that was a minimum of ten minutes long in a Poetry class and I was freaking out because ten minutes sounds like a lifetime when you're terrified of getting up in front of people. I signed up to speak about the life and works of John Keats and I had already followed my first rule and signed up to be one of the first presenters, so I knew that I needed to get my act together. I managed to find YouTube videos, similar to the one below by the user poetryreincarnations, that show, what appears to be, John Keats, himself, reading one of his poems. This was the perfect visual and auditory aide for my presentation because not only did it solve the problem of having to fill up time without me actually having to do any speaking, but my professor and classmates were not expecting the animation at all and I could actually hear them giggle or whisper about how cool it was. It was very encouraging to know that not only had I surprised them, but they thought it was interesting. I knew that would translate into major points on my grade.

Another trick to lengthening a presentation without you actually having to do the speaking is to incorporate audience participation. Be careful when you use this one because you have to remember that this is still your presentation and you should be doing most of the speaking/presenting. You can't abuse your power too much while you're up there, so it's not fair to have other people read all of your examples out loud, but encouraging a little crowd interaction can definitely have a positive outcome on your grade if you manage to get some good and/or lively discussion going, or get your classmates to ask interesting questions about your topic. That last part may have just scared you more, the idea of public speaking when you've planned everything to the letter is already terrifying enough and now I'm suggesting you have people ask you impromptu questions? Am I crazy? Well, maybe, but that is besides the point. Encouraging your audience to ask questions about your topic is a great way to lengthen your time and it helps you show your professor that you know your material inside and out because you can field questions. Most likely the person who is going to ask you questions is your teacher and they will do that whether you open the floor for discussion or not. They are testing you, so it would be in your favor to preempt that move by doing it yourself. Again, more bonus points.

Video Credit to poetryreincarnations on YouTube

Know Your Material Inside and Out

In order to give a great presentation, and to allow yourself to quell your anxiety, it is absolutely crucial that you know your topic as best as you possibly can. Study your material, research it from multiple angles, make short, precise note cards that you can reference in a pinch if you have to. The confidence to get up and speak in front of a room of people comes from being an expert on your topic. I've seen many people crash and burn during presentations and wedding toasts because they thought they could just "wing it" and succeed. That doesn't work and it definitely won't help someone who is already on edge about putting on a presentation.

Knowing your material not only allows you to present more confidently, but it also allows you more opportunities to "go off script" and have fun with your audience. In college I had to take a course dedicated to speech writing and presenting (talk about torture!) and I didn't think I would be able to survive it, but not only did I survive, I received many compliments on my material and my presentation skills. It helped immensely that I knew my material. I presented an argument about why I felt parents should allow and encourage their kids to read the Harry Potter series. It might sound like a mild topic, but it was highly controversial at the time because parents were arguing that it promoted witchcraft. Since I was such a huge Harry Potter fan I knew my material inside and out and knowing that series so well allowed me to have fun during my presentation. One moment that sticks out to me in particular was that during my slideshow I included a rather large photo of Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort and, as some of you might remember, the character has very pale skin and no nose. So this slide pops up and he's on display in all his glory for the audience to see and I go, "cute huh?" And it got a laugh! There are few things more encouraging during a presentation than making a joke and having it land correctly. If I didn't feel as comfortable with my material as I did, there is no way I would have been able to make that joke successfully.

Bring Handouts and/or Props

Another tip to creating an atmosphere where you feel comfortable up in front of the class is to include handouts for everyone. This can be anything as long as it pertains to your topic. You can give the audience pamphlets about your topic that they can flip through and silently read while you speak, you can give them printed versions of your charts and graphs so that they can look down at their desk instead of up at you, or you can give them a bingo card or word search that includes things you'll be speaking about so that they are occupied while you're presenting.

This tip is very much open to interpretation, and knowing what is appropriate for the class or arena in which you are speaking. I once brought coloring pages and crayons for a class I was presenting in and the only reason I was able to get away with it was because it was a child psychology class and I was talking about child development. Kids like to color, so it kind of fit in with my presentation. Bringing crayons to a presentation about the Cold War, however, wouldn't be appropriate. So you have to know your audience (and your professor) to know what sort of handouts or activities you can get away with.

To shine light on this from a different perspective, outside of the classroom, I have been a maid/matron of honor twice and successfully weaseled out of having to give a speech once because I was only sixteen and it was my sister's wedding. I played the shy little sister card and avoided it. Looking back, I wish I had been brave enough to speak, but what can I do? That time has come and gone. However, when my best friend got married it was a completely different story. I was a grown, married woman and I knew it would mean a lot to my BFF that I give a speech. Aside from my husband and my mom, my best friend is one of my biggest supporters and I knew that I wanted to give a great speech (without crying!) that honored her, her marriage, and our relationship. This is where the use of props came in very handy. Throughout our friendship my BFF and I discovered a love of clothes shopping. We would go out and gawk over the bright colors and soft fabrics together. One day, while we were out, we both zeroed in on a gorgeous, vibrant, yellow sweater. We loved it! Throughout the course of oogling this piece of clothing, one of us said, "yellow sweaters are love." It's an odd sentence, but we are an odd (but fun!) duo and so the phrase "yellow sweater" became our term of endearment, or our way of saying "I love you" to each other. So during my speech I not only told that story to the wedding guests, but I also presented my BFF with a beautiful yellow sweater. It got applause and "awws" from the crowd, but I really made a splash when I also presented her husband with a bright yellow sweater of his own to say "welcome to the family!" Knowing that I had those gifts in my arsenal, and that they would not only be well received by my BFF and her husband, but draw attention away from me and put the focus onto them and their reactions, helped put me more at ease with my speech.

Encouraging Words to Yourself During Your Presentation Can Help!

Dealing with Nervous Energy

Do you fidget when you're nervous? Do your hands shake when you're up in front of a class? If so, you're not alone. I twirl my wedding ring with my thumb if I'm feeling nervous in a group setting. And I'm definitely no stranger to shaky hands while being in front of a class. In 7th grade English, my teacher made us diagram sentences using a projector and I remember staring down at my wiggly, zig zagging writing as I underlined nouns and circled prepositional phrases under the harsh scrutiny of my classmates. If you do have a nervous tick, don't feel embarrassed, it is completely normal to have your anxiety manifest in a physical way. The best thing to do is to breathe and redirect that energy into useful motion. If you're like me and suffer from shaky hands during a speech it is perfectly acceptable to make use of a podium in front of you (if there is one), just lightly hold onto its sides while addressing your audience. Remember to let go once in awhile to adjust your notes, or direct attention to one of your examples, and make sure that you're not "white knuckling" it and no one will even think to look at your hands.

A great use of hands during a presentation is to write short notes on your cards as you speak. This is something that I have seen John Stewart do on The Daily Show. I don't know if he does this because he is nervous, or if they are genuine notes, but for you the notes you scribble could be as simple as encouraging words like, "you've got this," or "great job" to not only busy your hands, but to give yourself a little pep talk while you're presenting. You could also make notes on your materials prior to speaking and then use your nervous energy to put check marks next to them as you go along. How awesome will it feel to put a check next to the words "you're halfway done!" as you're following along? I bet it will even bring a smile to your face, which can only be a positive point for your presentation.

Other examples of nervous energy have to do with body language and posture. While you can't stand ramrod stiff during a presentation you also shouldn't pace the room. Being stiff as a scarecrow, or pacing like a nervous, first-time father both create a negative distraction for your audience that results in all eyes being on you in exactly the way you want to avoid. The best way to ensure that you don't stay in one place the whole time, but that you also don't pace, is to arrange your presentation materials in different locations rather than all directly in front of you, or under the table. For example, put your note cards on the podium, but place the handouts you will give the class on a table a short distance away. If a point you want to make can be illustrated on a whiteboard, use a section of the board that isn't immediately near you, but is still visible to the audience. Knowing the room you will be presenting in gives you an added advantage of being able to plot your moves, without it being obvious. And a great way to ensure that you're able to prep your space is to reference my first point again. Volunteer to present first, then you can arrive early to class to set up your materials. See, it's still a great strategy!

It's Only for a Moment

Believe it or not, it will be over before you know it. Another thing I like to do before I have to speak is that I think about the relief I will feel when it's over. It's not uncommon for me to be doing something the night before a speech and think to myself, "at this time tomorrow it will be over." Oddly enough just that sentence alone helps me. Because giving a presentation or speaking to a group is only for a short moment in your life. It doesn't matter if it is a three minute speech, a ten minute presentation, or an hour long lecture (yes, people who give lectures can feel nervous even though they do it often! No one is immune to the public speaking butterflies) it is only one moment in your life that you have to do this thing and you can do it. Just follow my tips and tricks, adapt the presentation to fit you, not the other way around, and you'll nail it every time.

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