How to beat presenter panic

Richard Tierney offers advice on how to speak in public with confidence


It’s 9pm and you’ve arrived at the hotel. The conference starts tomorrow. Up to now you’ve been too busy to give your presentation a moment’s thought. There’s a sick feeling in your stomach and the mini-bar looks inviting.

I was once called to a conference rehearsal day. There was a very elegant woman, who had a great speaking manner and around 30 beautiful slides. She ended her rehearsal slot flicking through the unused 10 slides muttering: “I’ll think of something to say at the end.” I’d been impressed at her ability to make a decent fist of material she had clearly only just seen.

“I have only 20 minutes to get ready for the welcome dinner. There’s no more that can be done,” she said.

She lasted five more months with the company.

I’m not saying this to frighten you. I am saying it to make you focus on those things you can do – right now – to improve your chances on stage tomorrow.

First, call room service. No one does well in a stressful situation on an empty stomach. Now, while the food is on its way, get a sheet of paper and write down the one thing you want your audience to know when you have finished speaking. Your success on stage tomorrow depends on this one thought. You have one thing written down. Pin it up somewhere where you can see it, the room’s going to get messy. Now you can have supporting facts. Write down all the things you can think of, each one on a separate piece of paper. Post-It notes work well if you have some. I find those little pads of hotel notepaper useful too.

Now the tricky bit. Actually, the only tricky bit. You have to choose just three of those facts to support your main message. Allow your facts to engage in gladiatorial combat until only the strongest survive. It will be a bloody fi ght, but three will ultimately emerge victorious. Now, it’s time to tidy up. Write your main message and your three supporting facts on a clean sheet of paper. You now have your content. No more required.

The tricky stuff is over, it’s all process from here on in.

Next, make a story. How do these three facts tell the main message you have? Imagine this: You meet an old friend for a drink. This friend knows nothing, and casually asks: “What do you really mean by that?” Pay close attention to your answer.

One mistake often made in presentations is that we forget how to speak, reverting to industry jargon, trying to speak like a lawyer, or like a piece of written prose. This is a speech. Speak like a human and your audience will understand you.

Now it’s time to write your actual words. Twenty minutes is 1,200 seconds. Humans speak around three words for every two seconds. So a 20-minute talk needs around 800 words; about the number of words in this article up to this point. No one wants to hear more than 20 minutes. The worst thing that will happen is that you get time to take questions.

At this point – if you have time – I would highly recommend writing out your speech in full, but you might be tempted to just list topic headings on some 3×5 cards, or scamp out the presentation as a mind map. Frankly it’s whatever floats your boat. Get the thing in a format which is as clear for you as it can be. Read it through out loud a couple of times and see how long it takes. Adjust accordingly.

Now it’s time to look at slides. You need five slides:

  • Your name and the title of your talk
  • Point One
  • Point Two
  • Point Three
  • Your key message

Anything more is just showing off.

Whenever you can use a picture instead of words your slides will have more impact. We remember pictures, we do not remember text. Show – don’t tell. If you already have a prepared slide deck you may like to use a little known function: the delete button.

Ruthlessly cut out any slides which do not bear on your story. Now you have a story to tell, and you have a nice, memorable terse set of slides to help you tell that story.

Time to rehearse again, with slides this time, and then go to bed. You need your sleep and the presentation will – magically – embed itself while you sleep.

Plus tomorrow is your big day. Nerves will affect you; nerves are just nature’s way of saying we’re excited. By keeping your message simple, your objective clear and removing distracting slides you have minimised this. By keeping the presentation concise and focused there is less time to worry. Next morning: have a good breakfast. Keep a bottle (not a glass) of water with you at the podium Get to the room early and rehearse on stage as much as possible.

Above all, remember where you are going.

While I have you, you might think ‘That went OK’ – and it will go OK. But if you want to really wow your audience this is – simply – not good enough. The great orators are great because they spend time getting the presentation just perfect.

Winston Churchill estimated that each minute of a speech takes one hour of preparation, which means three working days preparation for one 20-minute speech.

Using the steps I’ve described here, you’ll be fine.

You could be exceptional.


This is an edited extract from The Introverted Presenter – Ten Steps for Preparing and Delivering Successful Presentations, by Richard Tierney

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