Growing up, I loved speaking and performing in front of an audience. Whether that was through ballet, singing in my church choir, or community/school theatre productions, I had zero fear on stage.
Until my senior year of college.
What happened? My senior finance capstone included a group project and presentation that accounted for 50% of my grade. Unfortunately, the rest of my group had a bad case of "senioritis" (IKYK), which resulted in a bit of an unbalanced workload for our research, writing, and presentation. After a week of Starbucks Red Eyes to give me energy amidst the presentation prep along with everything else going on the last semester of my senior year, I was wiped out mentally and physically. I remember almost forgetting breakfast in my rush to get to class early, and I ate a couple bites of cereal as I ran out the door.
My exhaustion, coupled with adrenaline from the presentation pressure low blood sugar was a dangerous combination. I passed out in front of my class (thankfully caught by a proactive ROTC student who was sitting in the front row) and developed a terrible fear of public speaking. I managed my fear by being a "safe" presenter (read: the most boring presenter possible). I read from slides, I never deviated off script, and I stuck to the facts.
Over the years, as I worked through my fear of getting up in front of an audience, I was challenged by a leader at work who told me that I had to become a more engaging and confident speaker if I wanted to advance further. While this was the worst feedback I could have gotten (having to tackle a huge fear) I took the advice to heart and engaged a lot of people for perspective, advice, and observation of what works and what doesn't when it comes to engaging - and even persuading - an audience of people.
From this journey of honing my public speaking style, I created simple checklists and prep guides for myself. Now, I'm not only back to feeling at home on a stage (though thankfully not singing or dancing anymore), I love the energy from these interactions.
Here are the three most effective practices that I added to my presentation prep. Try these to add clarity, audience engagement, and persuasion to your communication.
1. Start with a compelling story. Our brains are hardwired to make connections through stories, so starting with a relevant story will help others remember what you said and create an emotional connection with them right from the beginning. Bonus: when you start with an engaged audience, it builds confidence for the rest of the talk.
2. Practice makes permanent. Rehearse what you are going to say over and over until it feels natural and second-nature to you. I've found this prep sheet for TED speakers to be instrumental in helping me prepare and practice in a constructive way. Bonus: when your content becomes second nature to you, it's easy to ad lib, veer off course a bit, or lose your place because your brain will go right back to where you need to be when you're done with your unplanned comments.
3. Involve your audience. People love to feel that they are part of a presentation, and it takes pressure off you as the speaker to fill the time or only talk about your data/findings/experience. Whether that is asking your audience questions, sharing a story about someone in the audience (especially someone that many people in the audience know), or planting questions with people in advance to get the conversation going, getting your audience involved makes it an interactive and engaging conversation among people.