Presenting information clearly and effectively is a vital skill to master if you wish to make a powerful personal impact and get your message across. However, there are times when our nerves get the better of us, and our communication misses the mark. This experience can undermine self-confidence and diminish your ability to influence events. It encourages your inner critic to pipe-up with negative commands such as “Don’t be nervous!” which is as helpful as “Don’t think about penguins”. Did you notice what you did then?
Just as unhelpful is telling yourself to “Relax!” muttered through a clenched jaw while grinding your teeth. It is not surprising that these experiences can lead us to avoid situations where we might speak-up. All of which can be severely self-limiting. Thankfully the ability to communicate our ideas well is a skill, not a talent. With effort, the application of technique and deliberate practice you can improve.
Let’s start by getting a handle on your nerves. Begin with a specific intent to take control of what is controllable, and not give focus to anything else. You might wish to do a Body Scan exercise to check-in with yourself. Where do you feel tense and perhaps sore? Some familiar places hold tension in pressure situations. The following five activities are easy to do and will help you to be relaxed, be more confident and free your voice to focus on the delivery of your talk:
- The jaw. Trying a little imaginary chewing. Think about chewing a toffee, then a piece of shortbread, and thirdly, a spoonful of Greek yoghurt. If you don’t like toffee, shortbread or yoghurt, you can imagine something else. Just start by thinking about the sensation of chewing something firm, then something crunchy then something smooth. Doing this will help relax your jaw.
- The neck. Pause and check your posture. Does your head feel balanced on the top of your spine? Is your chin is level, not pointing up in the air? Stand square and ensure that you are balanced on all four corners of your feet. Then gently realign your posture.
- The shoulders. Sore and hunched shoulders is a common problem for most people who spend a lot of our time sitting at desks and use mobile devices. Stand up. Raise both shoulders, trying to touch the bottom of your ears. Let your shoulders drop. Repeat three times.
- The mouth. Nerves can dry the mouth in a way that no amount of water can drench. This phenomenon is thanks to our’ fight/flight/freeze’ instinct that kicks in when we feel scared or sense danger. Resources are diverted from non-essential parts of the body to pump blood and oxygen into the parts needed to fight, hide or run away. A simple means of combating this is by running your tongue all along your upper teeth (with your mouth closed). It takes just a moment to do and will stimulate your saliva glands to do their job.
- The breath. The Four-Count Breath, also known as Box Breathing, is a simple technique to learn which will help calm your nerves. It involves inhaling to a count of four, pausing to hold the breath to a count of four and finally exhaling to the count of four. Repeat several times. Enjoy the feeling of relaxing into the flow of your breath going in, being held and then released. The technique is used by those in the emergency services and military personnel as well as sports professionals.
Now you have a strategy for dealing with nerves, next is to ensure you structure your talk so that you can get your point across with conviction and panache. The PREP framework is a method of putting together presentations that have an impact. What is more, it is recommended by ToastMasters International as probably the easiest one to learn and use. PREP stands for Point, Reason, Example, Point.
Here’s how to use it. Start by writing a short description of the topic. Follow this with the ideal impact you desire and finally the outcome you wish to achieve through communication. Keep this under 100 words. Then write the opening of what you want to say by asserting a point. In the body of the topic, you outline reasons for stating this point and illustrate with examples. Your conclusion restates the position you first made like so:
Step 1 – Point. Establish the issue and begin your communication with your main point about this. Focus on one core idea about this, so it is simpler for your audience to follow and comprehend.
Step 2 – Reasons. Back up your point with evidence. For example, use research and statistics to add credibility if you have these to hand.
Step 3 – Example. Provide examples of evidence to support your main point and your reasons for putting this forward. Use data to help your case if appropriate.
Step 4 – Point. Wrap up by reiterating your main point so that it sticks in people’s minds. Don’t forget the ‘call to action’ – what you want to achieve because of the communication.
The PREP framework will help you create a sensible structure that your audience can quickly follow. This approach allows you to concentrate on the content and delivery, rather than worry about the order. It is a deceptively simple yet incredibly useful method of structuring key messages. Then you can prepare your speaker notes into bullet points on your tablet or use 7 x 5 sized ‘flash cards’.
Now you have good content, a clear structure and a system for managing your nerves. The next step is to rehearse. Doing this alone is useful; however, it can be beneficial to run through your presentation in front of others and ask for their feedback. It is also helpful to time the talk, so you don’t feel under pressure to watch the clock on the day. You might want to record yourself using your mobile phone or another device. This is useful for checking on the speed and tone of your voice. You can even video your talk and play it back. The key is to take the time to prepare and rehearse in whatever way is best for you.
Anyone can learn how to deliver an excellent presentation. It takes four things: preparation of meaningful content, a clear and understandable structure, techniques to help calm your nerves, and the effort of deliberate practice.