Even the most confident individuals can feel nervous when giving a high-stakes business presentation.
I’m not talking about leading your weekly sales team meeting. I’m talking about the yearly investor relations meeting, the keynote address, the big pitch to the potential client who will take your business to the next level, or the board of directors meeting you have to nail.
In these make-or-break situations, it’s natural to feel less than confident. Obviously, you want your content to be spot-on and your talk (or script, outline, or PowerPoint deck) well crafted. But if you’ve made it to this point and think you’re 100% done, think again. Even after getting the content where you want it, you’re only 70% prepared at best.
What’s next? How can you boost your confidence and achieve the results you want? The following seven tips will help take your business presentation to the next level.
1. Practice out loud
The No. 1 rule to follow when it comes to preparing a powerhouse presentation is to practice or read your talk out loud. No matter how well it sounds as you read it to yourself silently, when you practice out loud, you will hear it from a different perspective. I frequently suggest practicing in the shower, while driving or when doing a routine chore. Yes, even if it feels odd to practice in an empty room or in front of the mirror, saying it out loud is crucial.
Did you know that on average it takes reading out loud a minimum of three times to finalize your talk or script? It’s true. When you hear it out loud, you are hearing exactly what your audience will hear. This simple exercise will lead you to simplify complex sentences or concepts, identify places in the text where you should slow down or pause for emphasis, and locate awkward phrasing or words that you will want to adjust.
2. Personalize your notes
Sometimes business leaders believe there is a “right” way to prepare their notes, as if there’s a magical template that professional speakers use and they should try to emulate. Some even think they “shouldn’t need” notes. However, the only “right” way to prepare is to do what works for you. Personalizing your notes will help you to be more present and connect with your audience.
Because you want to focus on delivering your message clearly during the presentation, your practice should include personalizing your notes, script or outline with this intention. Feel free to add color-coding, underlining, pictures, pen markings...anything that will help you deliver your message well.
Here are some examples:
- Even when using a teleprompter, it is important to have a current hard copy of your (marked-up) script in the unlikely event of technical difficulties. At the very least, it will give you a sense of security.
- Make use of the notes section on the computer or monitor in Presentation Mode when using PowerPoint. Be sure to practice using presenter mode, too, so it doesn’t throw you when you’re doing the real thing.
- If you’re reading from a script, double-space the lines, breaking up and marking the text in whatever way it makes sense to you.
Also, add in prompts such as “SLOW DOWN” if you tend to get excited and speak too quickly. If you’re nervous, write “KBF” (keep a bold face) as a reminder to forge ahead, whatever happens. If you are reading from a script, write “TTT” (think the thought) as a reminder to not just read the words, but to be engaged, mindful, and to think about what you’re saying as you speak.
3. Practice with distractions
Because giving a presentation is multitasking (i.e., speaking, clicking through slides, watching people walk in and out, your mic could die, etc.), you will want to practice with distractions. While it’s fine to start by practicing alone in your office, car or in the shower, realize these pristine circumstances are not realistic.
In addition, practice where you know others could distract you. Practice in a co-working space or a shared conference room, for instance. Better yet, gather your team or some generous acquaintances for a dress rehearsal.
4. Sleep on It
Try to give yourself enough lead-time so that you can give your brain about 48 hours of rest before presentation time. When you give your talk enough time to really “sink into your bones,” you’ll know it cold. This can make all the difference when it comes to boosting your confidence.
So here’s what I recommend: Prepare your outline, script or presentation, then practice it as much as possible out loud for about a week (shoot for five times if you can, with the first three rehearsals focused on content. This will allow you to focus on delivery during the remaining rehearsals). Then stop rehearsing and let it go for 48 hours. Practice once more the day of the presentation, and you’ll be good to go.
5. Be flexible
Remember that if something trips you up over and over as you practice, you will want to change that piece. Are there technical names that you know your audience will have trouble wrapping their minds around during your presentation? Do you have trouble saying a specific word? Change it.
I know sometimes the word that is tripping you up is the word you’re “supposed to use.” OK, then. Put it on a slide or throw it out to your audience. The spirit of flexibility here is all about finding a different way to handle it, not necessarily eliminating it from your presentation.
6. Be brilliant. Use plain English
Another note about using technical language. If you have the feeling that you’re “supposed to use” certain terminology, be sure to examine this feeling thoroughly. Where is it coming from? Set aside worries like, “my audience might think I don’t know the technical term.” In most cases, your audience will appreciate that you are explaining high-level concepts in a way that makes sense to them and helps them remember your valuable message.
This tip always takes me back to a vivid memory I have from the time my husband needed neck surgery. I will always remember how the surgeon explained the procedure to me in less than two minutes in a way that made sense and made me feel like I was in control. No one will think you’re stupid because you choose plain English over jargon.
7. Intention. Not precision
Keep in mind that you don’t have to, nor should you want to, memorize your presentation. A perfectly memorized speech, given without any emotion, will miss the mark every time. This is because what’s important is intention, not precision.
When you’re giving an important business presentation, you have two related goals: (a) to get your audience to receive your message and (b) to connect with your audience. As you practice and speak with focus on these two items, everything else will fall into place for you.
It’s natural to feel nervous when the stakes are high, but if you trust in your preparation, you can breathe a sigh of relief and let that last bit of lingering fear go. There’s no doubt that confidence can give you an edge. With solid content and these seven tips, you will feel the boost in confidence that will take your presentation to the next level.
Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.