I speak to audiences all across Canada as part of my job as an evangelist with Microsoft. I talk to large groups and small groups, to IT managers, to students. I speak about IT strategy, about careers in IT, and most importantly, about the nuts and bolts of Microsoft technology.
It was one of the reasons that I took the job – I wanted to have the opportunity to grow my public speaking skills. It wasn’t something I had done much before joining Microsoft but I thought I might be good at it. And apparently I’m not that bad, if the comments I get and the event evaluations are to be believed.
But it terrifies me each time.
Yup. That’s right. For a few days prior to every speaking engagement, particularly if I’m speaking on a new topic or using a new deck, I feel the anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I give my husband a heads up that I’m starting to feel edgy and he knows to cut me some extra slack until the event is over. He understands that if he pokes my buttons while I’m in that state, I just might explode.
I wonder each time if it’s worth it. Am I in the right job, if one of the main components of it gives me such grief? Perhaps not, but I’m too stubborn to give up because of it.
I’m much better than I was when I first started at managing the pre-presentation anxiety. I’ve learned certain techniques to lessen my anxiety, to relax, and to help me do my best but not care so deeply about perfection that it paralyzes me.
Having just completed 3 more speaking engagements over the last 4 weeks including a 6 hour technical workshop, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned for those of you have always wanted to have a public voice but have been afraid to try or those who are experienced speakers but face similar challenges to my own:
1. Practice out loud. Say the words out loud and you’ll find yourself better prepared to tell your stories with clarity in front of your audience. Find a mirror or a willing spouse, imagine your audience in front of you and go through your presentation from start to finish. Then do it again and again. I set up my notebook with a secondary monitor so that I can practise using a similar setup to having a projector in the room. And I sit in my office and talk out loud to myself like a crazy woman. This is the single most important thing you can do to ease your fears. That’s why it’s at the top of my list.
2. Remember that that the audience wants you to succeed. The people sitting in the audience are not cheering for your failure. In fact, since they took time out of their schedules to come and listen to you, they are rooting for you to succeed. If you stumble or mess up, smile, make a joke and carry on. You’ll find them smiling along with you. That happened to me recently. I messed up. So I looked out at the group in front of me and smiled. They smiled back encouragingly (or at least enough did!), I made a joke, several more laughed and we carried on. A good thing comes out of a not-so-great situation.
3. Own the room. On the day of the event, as soon as I arrive at the venue and it’s too late to worry anymore, the anxiety is replaced by a sense of purpose. I get there early, set up my equipment, and chat with the audience as they come in. I’m cool and confident. I own that room, that stage. Be early and make sure the room is set up as you want it. Greet people as they come in and get to know them a bit. Your audience will seem much less intimidating when you’re up on stage if there are a couple of familiar faces in the crowd.
4. Just do it. In front of the audience, I fall into a cadence and rhythm. It’s a comfortable place to be but a place I’ve only been able to find through experience. After the talk is over, there’s a sense of euphoria. In fact, the post-presentation rush is somewhat addictive. It’s when all my cares seem to be gone and all is right again with the world. But you have to do it to get that experience. You’ll fail to succeed at 100% of the things you don’t try.