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Stage Fright

You are about to facilitate a workshop. People are starting to enter the training room. Your executive director or general manager is sitting up front. Funders are sitting in the back of the room. Your boss stands up to introduce you and you walk over to the stage.

As you approach the front of the room your confidence fails. Your stomach starts doing flips and growling, your palms and arm pits are sweating, and your mouth feels like it's full of cotton balls. You pick up your notes and your hands are shaking. As you start to speak, your voice quivers a bit. Has this ever happened to you? Welcome to the world of stage fright. Most professionals and business people have shared that they prefer instant death over standing up and speaking to an audience.

I just described myself many years ago as a shy, very quiet little boy. It wasn't until I entered the field of broadcasting that I was forced by my boss to develop the courage to go on stage, sit behind a camera or microphone and report the news, read an editorial or give a movie review. I wanted to run out screaming and quit, but I was too afraid to resign or say it to my boss who was one of the most talented broadcasters to date. She never gave up on me, nor did she ever stop teaching me new techniques and always stood near me for support. One day while doing a media interview, I looked around and she had disappeared and I had to continue, if for no other reason, but to make her proud of me. I later found out that she was in the audience watching me and supporting me from afar. She is someone that I will never forget throughout my entire life. Even today when presenting, I always think of her and smile as I stand in front of an audience that's excited to receive information.

Even with my staff of professional consultants, marketing freelancers, graphic designers, and project managers -- many of them would tell me they would prefer to climb to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru or take a trek to the top of Mount Everest rather than climbing on stage to present to faces staring at them. Most people think that those working in the field of marketing, public relations and advertising are all extroverts, but it's simply not true. To be honest, I am happy that they are not all the same because that's exactly what makes us at Promotions West, think outside of the box. We are comprised of extroverts, introverts and those that fall in the middle; and it's the best team ever. Over the years I have spent time training them on how to overcome or handle their stage fright.

One of my brightest staff members to date was frightened to look anyone in the eye for fear that they would be judged, but in one-on-one meetings, they excelled and clients praised their performance at making them feel relaxed and confident with our team members. There were a few others that were similar and I took an interest in spending extra time with each of them to try to help. It wasn't about being afraid of sharing information on stage, but just a shyness from many of their childhoods of being teased by bullies. So a plan was developed to create baby steps, starting with looking people in the eye when chatting about work or fun things and learning how to have a conversation. One of the activities created was to take strolls around town in department stores, pharmacies, eat out in restaurants, visit chocolate stores, or wherever people were and to try to start a conversation. We started with choosing something nice to say about someone and giving them a complement. It wasn't about flirting, but about sharing kind thoughts. We worked at reaching people that they weren't interested in dating, because then they really tensed up. So we chose others and I would ask, "What kind thing would you say to that man or woman? For a moment they froze, but I am very patient. I demonstrated the first couple of times for them by choosing people and walking up to them and starting a conversation or giving them a kind word. Then the compliments flowed out of them. They shared things like: that's a beautiful colour they are wearing, I love their shoes, what a great haircut, what a cute puppy, what breed is that, or how old is your little boy or girl, they are adorable. They were all surprised at the smiles that came across the faces of these strangers. After several weeks of doing this, they became comfortable with talking to all types of people and sharing information. Something so simple as a kind word or, how are you today and waiting for a response can make a difference. They are all unstoppable now and teaching me new techniques.

Something so simple, that we practiced over and over again led them to the point of being ready to take the stage. Always in the beginning, I would be there with them, standing by their side presenting. It's amazing how comfortable they became knowing that leadership and team members always had their back.

If using a power point presentation, remember that your slides should be used as a road map only, and not read line by line as most facilitators will do. The problem with that is the audience can read the slides themselves and if everything is listed on the slide, there would be no need for the presenter to read it to them. In other words, it's boring and defeats the purpose of training. Over the years, especially working with government agencies, they would read the slides to their audience as opposed to speaking directly to them. Their backs were always to the audience while the audience paid little if any attention to what was being said. After all, the information needed was in the slide deck. Remember, everyone can read and don't need you to read to them. Slides should contain minimum information and not be used to inform. Informing or sharing information is the role of the presenter.

You are not alone if you have had this experience. Almost everyone has, even people who regularly speak to groups. Preparation is critical in overcoming stage fright. There are a few concepts that may help you to avoid stage fright:

Know your audience:

Before making a presentation, it’s always important to acquaint yourself with both the audience and the setting. Try talking to a few people who will be in the audience before you start. Reviewing the list of participants will give you a better idea of the organizations that will be attending the workshop. It also helps to start the day with an expectations activity. It's gives the presenter time to listen and take note of key things that were shared that can be included in the presentation.

Remember to look over the setting before you present. Find out where you will be speaking and try to get there early. Check out the room’s acoustics, sit in a chair and see the room from the audience’s perspective. Test the equipment and assume nothing. Be flexible—it’s key to being a successful trainer. Think about all the technical things that could go wrong and develop ideas that can be used to continue presenting your information. Identifying someone in your network that you trust that you can present to so they can give you positive and constructive feedback. Most people who are rather nervous don't appear to be at all. Knowing the information is the best lesson. It's always important to identify people that you can connect with in the audience that will give your strength and encouragement to succeed. Good presentations always take practice. Once you have the material down, you will be able to play with the presentation and become more flexible. It's important to have fun and to let the participants know that you want to be there with them.

Prepare your material:

Never underestimate how important good research and preparation are to reducing your anxiety. Knowing what you want to accomplish, what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it, will make you feel less nervous. Mark Twain said that it took him 3 weeks to prepare an impromptu speech. Here are four rules for preparing your presentation:

  • Know your topic. Audiences can sense when you are bluffing and feel that you are unsure of your topic.

  • Prepare more material than you think you will use. If you need to give a 45 or 60 minute presentation, develop enough materials to last longer. It's better to cut back than to run out of things to say.

  • Consider questions your audience may ask you. Come up with answers to potential questions before you give your presentation. Either incorporate the answer into your presentation or hold them in readiness in case they come up.

  • Memorize the first 60-seconds of your presentation. The greatest anxiety is experienced at the beginning of every speech. It could make you more comfortable, allowing you to get rolling smoothly.

  • Avoid rigid rules. Remember to use humor in your presentation if possible. It allows the audience to relax a bit and giggle. They tend to be alert and waiting for the next funny comment that will come from you. However, if you don't have a good sense of humour, I would recommend that you not use humour. For all of my trainings, I would always select two staff members to present together. It helps to have one of them with a good sense of humour.

Usually after your presentation, participants will come up to you and congratulate you on a job well done. Most speakers who think that they are nervous don't really appear to be nervous to the audience at all. Stop beating yourself, chances are you are a great presenter and facilitator. The more you practice, the more confident you will be as a speaker. Most importantly, remember to have fun with your material, your presentation and most importantly with the audience. You will find that the audience want to have a good time too. When participants have a good time, they share information from the training with others. It's very similar to word of mouth marketing or sharing.

Remember, every presentation has 3 essential objectives. The first aim is to educate: the audience should learn something from your presentation or speech. The second is to entertain: the audience should enjoy your presentation. The final element is to explain: all parts of your speech should be clear to your audience.

Remember to enjoy each and every presentation. Good luck! If any of this information was helpful, please share it with us at

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