Public speaking & professional presentation – taming stage-fright

public speaking and presentation
Samuel Agyeman-Prempeh, a Communications Strategist

Cockroaches. Yeah, I mean some people dread them! Fear is one thing all humans live with at one point or another in life. The fear of heights, loud sound and so much more seems very serious and valid. Recently, I chanced upon the power a particular kind of fear has on us.

On October 7, 1973, a short article by Peter Watson found its way to the London Sunday Times. The article’s content included a study that indicated 41% of Americans are most afraid of public speaking. Later, in 1977, this same fear of public speaking found its way into the book ‘The Book of Lists’. In a chapter entitled ‘14 Greatest Fears of People’, public speaking topped that chart (Dwyer and Davidson, 2012).

You are most likely as stunned as I was. However, pondering over it changed my perspective on the matter. I used to be very afraid of standing before a group of people to speak. It was a very difficult activity for me to do. I remember the first time I mustered the courage to speak to the student body in senior high school.

My fellow students in Achimota School stared at me as I managed to mumble some words out. I do not recall how I managed to make it off the podium when I was done. I recall that message well, an extract from Dr. David Schwartz’s ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’. My delivery was on ways to build confidence.  I had mixed feelings after this presentation. I asked myself, ‘who sent me?’

Years down the line, I have transformed into a professional public speaker – training many to overcome the same fear I once had. What changed? How did the young, timid boy find the voice and courage to speak? I will share with you some hacks that have helped me and some others which most professionals that I study make reference to in mastering this art.

  • Prepare! Prepare! Prepare!

There are many presentations I have delivered to diverse groups for the umpteenth time. My observation is that each time I assume I have mastery over the contents, I credit my previous delivery better.

For everything, one must prepare. Read your stuff. Do your research in and out, and leave no stone unturned. Which people are you addressing? Rehearse your pitch or presentation with friends and family. To help, you may write down the major points of your presentation on a sticky note to guide you so you do not read your script word-for-word or sound mechanical.

Preparation is key and fundamental; its essence cannot be overemphasised.

Preparation is remote; you do it ahead of time, days, months before your presentation.

Preparation is repetitive; you do it over and over.

  • Blow them away with a hook introduction

Some say first impressions are overrated. I agree. The challenge is at the time of presentation, the beauty or otherwise of your opening can impact the crux of your delivery.

Now you know your stuff and are good to go ace that presentation. However, after stating your name, you start getting sweaty and do not know what to say to break the ice. My best bet when I get to this stage is to say something that will get them engaged. State a mind-blowing fact, share a riveting story that will enchant them from the beginning, or say something controversial pertaining to your topic that is sure to start a conversation among your audience. Throw a demonstration or an audiovisual in there, too.

  • Maintain eye contact

I have a simple rule of arriving ahead of events. As a gesture, I exchange pleasantries with stakeholders and participants of the session. When this is done well, a connection is easily established during your delivery.

You need to resonate with your audience. Staring in the air, the ceiling or their foreheads is not a practice for friends. You do not want to be received as a stranger.

Another suggestion is to scan the room to identify any known faces and maintain eye contact with them throughout your discourse. If you practice your pleasantries – which I stated earlier – well enough, you should be able to recall some names during your delivery. Everyone’s ear is tickled by the music of their name.

  • Laughter is good medicine

I admire OB Amponsah, Clemento Suarez and more recently Khemical. During my presentations, however, I am mindful that their ingenuity does not extend to me. I do not attempt to be like Mr. Macaroni or Kalyboss. Very importantly, I take inspiration from these relevant characters and make reference to inspiring content that will tickle my audience.

Throw in a few jokes here and there as you speak. There is no need to be uptight. Lighten-up the mood with a joke or two. To be safe, you can laugh at something you did. You can laugh at yourself when you make a mistake. That way, it doesn’t seem awkward. Fill in the silences with a well-crafted joke so the audience can loosen-up and throw in a few too when necessary. It is important that you carefully select your humour-based content ahead of your session and lace them to suit the content and context of your presentation. As a guide, please do not pre-empt your audience in that what you are about to tell them will make them laugh.

Be mindful that many are sensitive to jokes that relate to politics, ethnicity and religiosity. You do not want to be offensive with your delivery.

We speak to people all the time. Friends, family, colleagues at work, our partners and children. Hence, there is no escaping this fear. The best public speakers have shared that seconds or minutes ahead of their delivery, they get anxious. There is only one way out. Tame this fear as often as you feel it.

Volunteer to speak at events. Say that opening prayer. Give that vote of thanks. Introduce the chairperson for that fundraiser. They are great opportunities to draw you closer, one step at a time, to kill that stage-fright.

>>>the writer is a corporate trainer and professional ghost-writer assisting busy executives to write and publish their books, articles and speeches. He has served as Head of Protocol at a diplomatic mission, Corporate Affairs Officer at a French multinational agribusiness, and as an Events and Media Correspondent for a digital ad agency. You may contact the author via; [email protected]

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