Four tips to overcome public speaking nerves (with a little help from Jerry Seinfeld)

In this posting from the LinkedIn Agency Influencer program, PHD Melbourne's Simon Lawson describes how his presentation patter evolved from panic to polished.

A large part of working for an advertising agency, for a media owner or for a professional services firm of any description, is the requirement to effectively present your work, thinking and ideas to clients and potential clients.

The more senior you become, the more important and frequent these presentations become.

The ability to present well becomes a required skill and your success and your firm’s success can depend on it.

Tension emerges with the realisation that it’s not easy: Most people don’t like the idea of speaking in public and for many of us, it doesn’t come naturally at all.

Jerry Seinfeld does a very funny bit that sums up the situation:

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

I remember switching from being the person sitting next to the person presenting to being the person presenting in early 2007, and found it very challenging.

I’d had little to no presentation training, but was suddenly expected to be up on my feet presenting to a room full of important clients, doing my best.

I remember experiencing a variety of unexpected feelings, but most especially the urge to flee the room and my voice drying up, making it difficult to speak.

On one devastating occasion, I recall strange squeaking and crackling sounds coming out of my mouth as I tried to speak, and looks of bewilderment from the audience.

It was a nightmare.

It didn’t happen all the time, but it did happen frequently enough to induce a sense of panic, to put it mildly, each time I stood up to present.

It seems obvious, but what I know now and what I didn’t know 10 years ago is that the ability to present well is a learned skill.

In more recent years, as I’ve become a more accomplished presenter, I have been called upon to present as part of a number of important new business pitches, where the pressure is really on.

People react differently in the day prior and hours before an important pitch as they deal with their own nerves.

Some people go quiet, others get verbal diarrhoea and just can’t stop talking.

Some people make light of the situation, cracking jokes to lighten the mood while others are quick to snap: It can be a volatile mix and debilitating to those feeling nervous about their impending performance.

Of all the tips and techniques I’ve embraced over the years on my ongoing journey to becoming the best presenter I can be, there are 4 that I have found to be the most effective in overcoming presenting nerves:

Tip 1: Breathe

As the moment to present approaches, our nerves can often cause us to take shallow breaths depriving the brain of the oxygen it needs to operate at its optimum level. To combat this, I spend those moments taking long and deep breaths.

I don’t know why it works, but it works for me.

Tip 2: The first sentence

A lot of people get stuck trying to memorise and recite their presentations. They start off well, but falter when their memory fails them. I was given the tip a few years ago to concentrate on memorising only your first line.

Nail the first sentence and you can slide easily into your flow.

Tip 3: Make sure everyone feels supported

Strangely, groups are often more nervous about performing in front of their colleagues than their actual audience. Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe have a great approach to making sure everyone feels supported before a performance: they gather the group together and remind everyone that they’re a team and that if one member stumbles, the others will always step in and support them.

I make a point of always having this conversation with my colleagues before a big meeting.

Tip 4: Practice

Take it from me that the more you present, the better you will get. Don’t immediately categorise yourself as a bad presenter if you struggle when you first start presenting.

Stick with it, take your opportunities to practice and you’ll get there: It certainly took me a while.

I hope these tips are as useful to you as they have been to me over the last decade.

Happy presenting, and if you have any other good presenting tips, please share them in the comments section below.

And one final tip, probably the most important of all: Be yourself.

Simon Lawson is the general manager at PHD Melbourne.

This article is part of the LinkedIn Agency Influencer program. See more from the program by clicking on the banner below.


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