You know that feeling when you’re in the spotlight and you flub your lines? When your head starts to buzz and all you can see is white? You’re not alone. Although 70 percent of Americans who speak publicly believe presentation skills are essential to their success, 74 percent of people suffer from anxiety when it’s time to showcase those skills.
From corporate meetings to large-scale presentations, the fight-flight-freeze response is the same. I’ve seen speakers stare out into the audience like a deer in headlights. I’ve seen speakers hop back and forth on their feet, using filler words (“um,” “uh,” “so” or repeating their last word) while trying to remember where they were, or turn their backs to the audience and stare at the PowerPoint, saying, “Uh, where was I?”
The truth is that your audience doesn’t want you to fail.
If you get stuck and feel as if you look or sound like a Muppet, that’s your misperception. As the speaker, you might feel like your credibility and legitimacy are in question. The truth is that your audience doesn’t want you to fail. They’re actually thinking, Come on, you can do it!
As a leadership advisor and public speaking coach, I can tell you that a little fear isn’t a bad thing. If you’re too sure of yourself, you risk underpreparing and increase the likelihood of that dreadful I don’t know what to say next moment.
Years ago, I participated in a biannual people review with functional leaders of a publicly traded company who were trying to justify a projected head count. One employee, who overestimated her ability to navigate and handle the seasoned audience, walked into the room thinking she understood how to tell the CEO what she needed in a compelling way.
When the CEO started rocking back and forth in his chair and rubbing his hands together, it signaled to her, Get ready, you’re about to be pummeled with questions.
He then proceeded to hammer her with strategically specific questions related to how well she knew her business. Although she fundamentally knew the answers, she stammered, used generalizations and fumbled her responses, forgetting that it was up to her to manage her audience: the CEO.
Because she lost her way, she was asked to leave the room, and the vice president had to handle the dialogue. This employee was convinced that she knew her numbers but forgot what her purpose was; her call to action. Although she didn’t lose her job, she did lose credibility and personal confidence, which is difficult to repair.
Now that your anxiety is heightened, listen up: You’ve got this. You can always recover when the inevitable hiccup happens by following these four steps.
1. Manage the unexpected.
Technology will fail you, so always prepare a contingency plan. Don’t be one of the 90 percent of speakers who let technical difficulties throw them off their games.
For example, when I was presenting to 500 people, my graphics-heavy presentation crashed the system. I said to the audience, “It seems we’re having a technical moment. Take about five minutes to catch up on your email while we repair this.”
After telling one of the producers that I needed a Mac and an adapter right away, I walked back out and said to the audience, “Alas, a Mac versus PC problem!” which earned a few chuckles. Once I had the needed equipment, I took control and brought the audience back to where I’d left off by saying, “I’m ready if you are.” Then I clicked to the correct slide and resumed by saying, “As you will remember…”
When this happens to you, remain composed and unflustered. Don’t freak out by showing outward signs of stress. Take your time and, if appropriate, have a bit of fun. Make a joke about the issue or share a story that relates to your presentation—anything to show that you’re still in control and will proceed, regardless of the circumstances.
Related: 10 Ways Successful People Stay Calm
2. Break it down.
Your audience knows how to read, so stop relying on your presentation to guide your talk. People are there to listen to you talk, not to watch you read slides.
Instead, think about the go-to anchors in your speech in terms of chunks or buckets. This information can be placed in your PowerPoint notes or on note cards. I find using large fonts, colors and the underline feature helps me see while scanning and speaking simultaneously, priming my next thought and keeping me on track.
If you’re a nervous speaker, adding inspirational words to your note cards helps calm the jitters. Encouraging words are good to look at when you get stuck because they remind you that you’ve got this. Some of mine, depending on my mood or audience, are “Be Bold,” “Badassery” and “WW” (for Wonder Woman).
3. Cut the filler.
This is Public Speaking 101, but it’s worth reiterating: Instead of unconsciously saying, “um,” “uh,” “so,” or any other filler word to help you think, stop. Take a breath. Have you ever tried to talk while inhaling? It doesn’t work. A pause is not only more credible than stammering, but it also lends an air of gravitas.
Some might argue that filler words make you sound more natural. In public speaking, however, they distract the audience. You want them listening to your message, not counting how many times you say “uh.”
Lastly, always maintain control of your voice. Sometimes, when I get nervous, my voice shakes and catches in my throat because I’m breathing shallowly. So I multitask by taking a really deep breath in and then exhaling from my belly while checking my note cards. Something triggered my anxiety, so I’ll read the note I wrote to myself—“WW”—and dive back in.
4. Recover from rambling.
Maybe you are a “word rambler.” When you get nervous, do you overtalk, pivot or use too many words to make your point? These are major distractors. The audience is trying to follow, scan, relate and determine what the hell you’re saying. Basically, you’re taking them on a verbal roller coaster ride.
When you catch yourself rambling, stop talking and count to three. Consider saying to the audience, “As you can probably see, this topic is a real passion of mine,” “Let me make this simple,” or “My point is,” and then say it succinctly.
Be cognizant of when you start to ramble.
Too often, speakers inundate the audience with data, overloading them with facts, and never get to the point. Be cognizant of when you start to ramble, and once you realize it, find a way to tie whatever you’re saying back into your main point. Consider saying you forgot where you were, or get the audience to help you remember by asking, “Where have I taken you?” or “Where was I?”
Paradoxically, naming the fact that you’ve become lost builds credibility. You went on a tangent and caught yourself, and the audience will give you a break.
I once saw a presenter go into microscopic detail explaining why he was asking for a significantly higher budget for a global marketing initiative. The vice president tuned out, had a side conversation and eventually cut him off. His budget wasn’t approved because he rambled too much irrelevant information.
If he had stopped and recognized that he was getting too granular when the vice president disconnected, he could have said, “Listen, I need X, Y and Z because…” By taking a step back and linking his goal to the leader’s bigger picture, he might have had a better chance of having his request approved.
Speaking in public can be awkward. Just remember: Shit happens. You can always bounce back by pausing. Respect the challenge ahead of time, prepare yourself for the worst and use your tools to wow your audience. You’ve got this.
Related: 9 Tips to Say It Better