4 Anxiety-Provoking Misconceptions About Giving Presentations
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a bit where he says that public speaking is the No. 1 fear of Americans. Dying is No. 2. So that means that if you’re at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
For many people, this joke isn’t much of an exaggeration. And I can relate. I give presentations all the time, and I still get nervous and feel a bit of dread whenever I have an upcoming speaking engagement.
It’s natural to feel nervous when you’re speaking in front of a live audience. You’re exposed and you’re all alone up there on stage or in the front of the room. But it’s not natural to be petrified—to the point that you’d rather be in the coffin—when it comes to talking about a topic that you likely discuss all the time in your day-to-day work.
I think much of the extreme fear of public speaking stems from misconceptions that people have about giving presentations in front of a live audience. My hope is that by identifying some of these misconceptions—and then explaining the reality—it will eliminate some of the unnecessary anxiety and help you feel confident about your ability to deliver an effective presentation.
Misconception: Presenting is about charisma, stage presence, and fancy slides
Many people mistakenly think that good presenters must have some innate talent for public speaking. Similarly, they equate good presenting with characteristics like “charisma” and “the ability to command a room,” as well as elaborate slides and slick multi-media tools.
All of these things certainly help make a presentation more effective, but none of them are essential. The essence of an effective presentation has much more to do with substance and structure than it does about style.
Being a good presenter is about:
1) understanding what you want the audience to do or think
2) analyzing the audience’s receptivity to your idea
3) conveying your idea in a way that focuses the audience’s attention on the right things
Like any other skill, presenting is something that can be learned—you just have to focus on the right things and be willing to practice applying those principles.
Misconception: Writing and presenting are two distinct skills
It’s not uncommon for people who are effective writers to view presenting as something that’s well beyond their skillset. This stems from the idea that writing and presenting are two completely distinct skills.
I believe that if you made a Venn diagram of the skills required for good writing and good presenting, the overlapping part would be about 80% of the graphic. Writing and presenting are just two forms of communicating that use somewhat different mediums.
A good presentation is built on a story arc that identifies the audience’s pain points and uses storytelling techniques to describe a solution to those problems—essentially the same elements of good writing. To learn more about these overlapping skills, check out next week’s blog post on What Good Writing and Good Presenting Have in Common.
Misconception: Your slides are the presentation
At a recent talk I gave to CFA Society Chicago, one of the attendees came up to me and said, “I really enjoyed your presentation. Can you email it to me?” This innocuous question highlights what I believe is one of the biggest misconceptions that’s hurting people’s ability to give effective presentations. In financial services and other professional services fields, there is a widespread belief that the slides are the presentation.
You’re the presentation; the slides are simply visual aids to strengthen the presentation. Slides can do this by focusing the audience’s attention on the right information and by making it easier for the audience to grasp topics. Remember, the slides are just one aspect of the overall presentation. You’re the star of the show.
Misconception: You can only have one version of your slides
Putting together a slide deck for a presentation can be an incredible time-suck, especially when there are multiple presenters and reviewers involved. I think this is why people only want to create one version of the deck and be done with it. The problem is that this mindset completely ignores the fact that the deck needs to play vastly different roles depending on how it’s going to be consumed by the audience.
When putting together your slides, it’s important to think about the context in which they will be consumed. If the presenter is talking through the slides, they don’t need to spell everything out for the audience—that’s the speaker’s job. But if the slides are going to be consumed without the speaker there, the slides should be more explicit.
Along these lines, in most cases, it will make sense to create two separate versions of the slide deck: one that’s used simply as a visual aid for the presenter and one that can be circulated before or after the actual presentation.
I get it. Creating two versions requires extra work. But it’s not twice as much work. I recommend creating the longer, more explicit stand-alone version first; then streamline that version and add more impactful visual elements to create the version that the speaker will use. I’ve found that creating the second version only takes about 25% of the time required to create the first version. It’s a minimal investment with a major impact.
Overcoming Your Fears and Addressing Your Misconceptions
I don’t expect anyone to read this blog post and instantly get over his or her fears of public speaking and giving presentations. Like I said, it’s natural to feel some degree of nervousness when you’ve to talk in front of a live audience. But like most fears, I’m willing to bet that some portion of your anxiety stems from ideas that you’ve developed that don’t accurately reflect the reality of the situation.
Another way to help ease your nerves is to remind yourself that your presentation is an opportunity to help the audience. Regardless of what your presentation is about, the audience wouldn’t be there unless they—at some level—believe that you had information that could help them. By reframing your mindset around “I’m going to try my best to help these people,” instead of “I’m going to try my best to convince the audience that I’m a smart person who is a good presenter,” I’ve found that it takes a tremendous amount of pressure off me and helps me view the presentation as an opportunity instead of a burden.
I hope these tips will make you more excited about your next opportunity to give a presentation.
For more insight about how financial professionals can become better presenters, click below to download our “Present Like a Pro” e-book.
About the Author Scott Wentworth is the founder and head writer of Wentworth Financial Communications. He has served as a ghostwriter for portfolio managers, investment bankers, attorneys, and other thought leaders across the financial services industry. It took all the willpower he could muster to not include "Who You Gonna Call?" in the title of this blog post.