Q: I am now in a position where I
have to make presentations to
clients, as well as to some of our
internal teams. Speaking in front
of a group terrifies me, and I really
don’t like this sort of thing—help!
It has been said the fear of public speaking is even
greater than the fear of death. It may surprise you
to learn that even though I have been giving talks,
presentations and “pitches” for over 22 years in my
role at Sayles Graphic Design, whenever I get up in
front of a crowd I still experience a moment when
I wonder if this will be the time I really flub up.
Thankfully, my anxiety attacks have become shorter
and less severe over the years, but in certain situations
they are still there. I think those jitters exist to
remind me that I didn’t die during or after the last
talk or presentation I gave, and that I can make it
through the present challenge, too.
Just as we talk about the concept and execution of
a design project, when considering a presentation or
discourse it may be helpful to think in terms of content
and delivery. There is so much to say about the
topic of presentations and presenting that this will
be a two-part column. We’ll start with the delivery
aspect, and in the next issue focus on the structure
and substance—the content—of the talk.
Nearly everyone makes presentations, chairs meetings
or gives sales pitches at some time or another.
Whether you’re giving your first talk tomorrow or
you’re a seasoned presentation pro, the following
pointers will help you to organize yourself:
Do your homework. Know your audience,
as well as what they are expecting from you. The
more information you have about the person, team
or company you’re talking to, the easier it will be to
frame your idea in a way that resonates with them.
Clarify ahead of time what the presentation will
consist of, how long you will have, who will be there
and what the expected outcome will be. If the event
was scheduled far in advance, it might not hurt to reconfirm the above items to ensure that nothing
significant has changed that might affect you or how
you structure what you’re presenting.
Practice makes perfect. Rehearse with a colleague,
your spouse or in front of a mirror. The point
is for you to get comfortable with talking out loud
about your topic or idea. The more prepared you
are, the more confident you will feel. These dry runs
will also help you have a sense for how long you will
actually be speaking, so you can adjust as needed.
Sell yourself first. When people like you, they
are more open to your ideas. Do not underestimate
the value of being personable. Allow your personality
to come through as you speak. Try to avoid coming
off as cocky or indifferent: You don’t want anything
to detract from what you’re covering in your talk.
Stick to the high points. Don’t try to include
every single detail initially. Your challenge is to generate
interest and excitement. Let your ideas inspire the
person or group you’re presenting to. Good salespeople
know exactly when to stop talking. Look for signs
that your audience is restless—shifting in their seats,
side conversations, drifting eyes—all of these are cues
that you need to be wrapping up.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you
don’t have the resources, the product or the permission
to do what you say—don’t offer. The quickest way to
ruin your chances of moving forward with your idea
(or your career) is to be branded as a fabricator.
Be passionate about your position. When you
are selling an idea—particularly a creative concept—you’re also selling the fact that you are capable of
bringing it to fruition. If you can inspire the people
you’re talking to with your own sincere excitement,
the odds of getting the idea accepted improve greatly.
Of course, you’ll want to be appropriate about your
zeal, but generally speaking, people respond favorably
Consider outside help. A session with a counselor
or speech coach can help ease jitters. A good
coach will meet with you, get an idea of your style
and then offer you some specific advice on how to
address the audience and help you to identify what
your areas for improvement might be.
Speaking of outside assistance, a few veteran presenters
offer these best practices for novice speakers:
1. Speak slower! Many presenters race through
what they have to say, leaving the audience
stunned and underwhelmed.
2. Talk to individuals, not to the room: Make
3. Look for the friendly, nodding soul—there is
at least one in every crowd—whom you can
come back to for psychological support when
you feel yourself going off track or you need
an extra shot of positive reinforcement.
4. Think before you speak. Take pauses. The
silences may seem painfully long to you when
you are up there, but they really are not.
5. Drink lots of water beforehand, and have a
glass nearby in case you need it.
6. Take care of yourself physically: Get a good
night’s sleep, eat lightly before your presentation,
avoid alcohol the night before and don’t
overdo the caffeine that day.
7. Breathe. Use relaxation techniques, such as
deep breathing or meditation, to help keep you
calm. Get some oxygen up to those brain cells.
8. Visualize a positive outcome. Imagine yourself
surrounded by the group, being congratulated
on a job well-done.
9. Try to get into the room where you will be
presenting ahead of time, so you can feel comfortable
with the space.
10. Don’t read your slides or notes. They should
support what you are saying, not be what you
11. Don’t agonize over mistakes, and don’t say
you’re sorry. Stay confident, and if you mess
12. Pause to let strong ideas sink in. This can be
hard to remember, but your audience needs
time to absorb and take breaks too.
13. Smile, joke and laugh if appropriate. A little
humor goes a long way (but don’t overdo it).
14. Be prepared for interruptions. Many times, if
you are doing well, you’ll have lots of questions
from the floor.
15. Remember that anxiety is a natural reaction to
public speaking. A moderate level of nervousness
is actually beneficial, because it motivates
you to work hard and try your best. Remind
yourself beforehand that you are thoroughly
prepared and that giving a presentation is a
16. If possible, invite someone you trust to attend
your talk as an observer and ask him/her to
give you honest feedback and a candid assessment
after you’re done.