When planning meetings for Renasant Bank, John Oxford, CFMP, director of marketing and public relations, senior vice president at Renasant Bank, knows all too well how stage fright can grip presenters and cause a meeting or event to come to a halt. People with stage fright have a tremendous fear of being negatively judged. Like Oxford, many meeting and event planners within the financial and insurance arena understand the issue of stage fright. That’s because in this industry, where presentations are extremely common, planners often need to work with speakers on delivering a solid presentation that keeps the audience coming back for more.
Two of the biggest causes of stage fright are inexperience and unpreparedness. “Although even the most experienced speakers still have some stage fright, as with anything, the more you practice it, the better you become and less nervous you are,” Oxford says.
Fear of public speaking can happen in front of groups of all sizes. In fact, many people find public speaking easier as the group gets larger.
“A room of 20 people is actually more demanding than a room of 20,000 due to the personalization of the space and close quarters along with the ability to have Q&A sessions, vs. a deep stage and a microphone, which changes the atmosphere,” Oxford says. “The larger the audience gets, the more they become sort of a blur after the first couple of rows.”
“One of the best ways to ease stage fright and bond with the audience at the same time is to open with a personal story.” — Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTSM
Public speaking takes many forms. Melissa Forziat of Melissa Forziat Events and Marketing is a public speaker who has shown clients how to use formal speeches, pitches and elevator speeches as a marketing tool for their businesses. As someone who speaks throughout the United States in a variety of business settings, she shares some truths about public speaking. In the majority of situations, the person giving the speech is far more knowledgeable about the topic than anyone else in the room.
“This is a point that I would emphasize,” Forziat says. “Chances are that you have done more research and more thinking about your topic, so you are doing them a favor by informing them. When you reframe it like that, it can ease the pressure. Instead of feeling judged, you realize that you are, in fact, providing a service to the people in the room by sharing what you know.”
Rich Sturchio, president of Cramer, an event agency with a focus on financial and professional service clients, has worked with myriad insurance and financial-based clients on perfecting presentation skills and overcoming stage fright.
Sturchio says that great public speakers are genuine. It’s easy for an audience to sense when a presenter has been over-coached because there is often an incongruity in their persona and performance.
“A great public speaker also is comfortable and articulate, with a touch of humor and humility,” Sturchio says. “An audience wants to identify with the speaker on some level, so along with their command of the subject matter, they need to reveal a little of themselves so we can believe them and relate to them. I’ve seen great speakers march around the stage and shout, and I’ve seen great speakers stand behind a podium and speak almost quietly into their script. In both cases, the speakers were true to themselves. They knew their strengths and weaknesses and made the best of them.”
There is no magic trick to beating stage fright because each person experiences it in different ways.
That said, Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTSM, president of Strategic Meetings & Events, says she tells her clients that one of the best ways to ease stage fright and bond with the audience at the same time is to open with a personal story. Here’s why: People don’t expect it.
“Lower your volume, just slightly at key points,” Lamagna says. “People will unconsciously lean forward to hear you, literally bringing themselves closer to you.”
Other tips include having presenters bite the tip of their tongue to alleviate dry mouth, wear clothes that they feel confident in, and wear shoes that are comfortable and won’t shake if their legs tremble.
“It’s important that presenters remember all the presentations they have sat through and realize that the audience is there to listen and learn; they want them to succeed,” Lamagna says. “The worst-case scenario is they’ll quietly and contentedly check their phones if the presenter doesn’t hit the mark.”
Oxford stresses that speakers are judged, like meeting a new person, in the first 30 seconds to minute of their speech. Therefore, a strong start wins the audience, as well as eases the nerves. “They must practice to be a great speaker, but if there is one thing to practice the most, it is their opening. And, practice it until they are sick of it,” he says.
Oxford advises people who are giving big presentations at meetings and events to practice one hour for every minute of their speech.
“For example, if you have a 20-minute speech, you give it 20 hours of practice,” he says. “It sounds crazy, but the ones that took it seriously and practiced this much became excellent speakers, and their nervousness was nonexistent.”
Forziat suggests that it is not just about memorizing but understanding what you are saying.
“Very often, as you practice, you will come across moments in the delivery that feel unnatural or do not quite follow a logical order in your brain,” she says. “Fix them so that the rhythm feels right. Those moments are the ones you will stress about the most, so address them up front.”
There is a second aspect of public speaking — aside from the delivery of pre-developed material — that can be stressful as a speaker: the Q&A. Usually this is a fear of not having the answers to questions and appearing as less than an expert.
“One of my suggestions is to plan out some lines to say in the event a question is asked that you cannot answer in that moment,” Forziat says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it is OK if you do not have an answer to a question. You can say, ‘What a great question. You have really made me think with that one. I would like to … do a little research to make sure I give you the right information. Let’s connect after this so I can get your contact details.’ If you have a few lines at the ready for this type of situation, you are prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
Another good practice is to work on breathing. Inexperienced speakers tend to breathe and talk very fast in their opening until they get comfortable. A presenter should try to slow down, take some controlled breaths and do not be afraid to pause before beginning.
“Also mentally realize that the vast majority of the audience is rooting for the presenter to do well and inform, entertain or persuade them of or about something,” Oxford says.
Knowing the audience is the first step to winning them over. Following this, speakers should tactically use one of the methods below for gaining the audience’s attention in their speech. For example:
These methods will work if they are authentic and done with passion and energy. What doesn’t work is a shaky voice, bad breathing rhythm, looking down and reading the entire time, not being dressed appropriately and lacking energy.
“The best speakers can make a boring topic exciting, while nervous and boring speakers can make the most exciting topic uninteresting,” Oxford says.
Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications and author of Speak Like a CEO, has delivered hundreds of presentations to audiences across the globe and offers the following tips on public speaking:
“Read the audience and be prepared to change it up if they’re not responding well,” Bates says. “I was speaking before an audience of PR professionals and, although they were being polite, I could tell that I wasn’t hitting the mark. Immediately, I jumped down from the stage and began walking through the audience to engage [them] in my talk. When it was done, I received high marks in the final evaluation, but had I stayed on the stage, I wouldn’t have.”
And a presenter should know when enough is enough. Even if the audience is hanging on their every word, they need to say what they plan to say and be done. Don’t be the guest that stays too long at the party.
While presenters don’t want to come across as overly-scripted, it’s also important to practice in front of a mirror or in front of some good friends or colleagues so that they are extremely comfortable with their speech and can recognize what comes next without having to glance at notes.
“That way, they will come across as natural, seamless and authentic to their audience,” Bates says.
Stephanie M. Scotti, owner of Professionally Speaking Consulting, says it’s important that speakers share from their heart, not their head. Merely presenting a litany of cold, hard facts is “ho-hum” for the speaker and the audience. After all, why should listeners pay attention when they could easily get the same information online?
“Speakers must make it meaningful by sharing their interpretation of those facts,” Scotti says. “I’ve noticed this effect when listening to sports commentators. It’s easy to tune them out when they merely recite a list of statistics about a player or team. But when they share their own insights about those facts and make predictions about how they may impact the outcome of the game or even the season, their enthusiasm is inspiring and much more interesting. When you add your own insights to your presentation, your audience will sit up and take notice.”
Speakers or presenters also need to develop a message they believe in.
To state it simply, if the speaker doesn’t believe in the message, neither will the listeners.
As Scotti explains, some speakers make the mistake of relying too heavily on personal charisma, hoping that will be enough to get the audience to buy into the content of the presentation. In reality, that doesn’t work.
“People can sense when something is ‘off,’” she says. “They might not be able to explain it, but listeners know when a speaker is not authentic, and the result is an automatic disconnect. Speakers can’t make it by faking it. It’s passion for the subject and the message that drives delivery. It enables the presenter to convey the message in an animated way that establishes credibility, grabs attention and allows the audience to get it.”
For presenters at a meeting or event, there are some key mistakes to avoid.
The first is not preparing enough for the presentation, especially when speaking to groups who may specialize or have interest in a specific area of the topic.
Also, some presenters make the mistake of memorizing their speech. By doing this, the speaker becomes more worried about “remembering” than communicating.
“Some presenters make the mistake of not taking the time to visit the venue where they are speaking, even if it is the meeting room right down the hall,” Scotti says. “Planners should go there, and make sure it is set up the way they want it to be. If it can’t be, then figure out how you can make the room more comfortable for them.”
Another common error is trying to relate to an audience and not knowing the subject.
Oxford once saw a speaker try to use a golf metaphor.
“They used the incorrect sports terminology, and it was to a room full of bankers, which by default and stereotype knew a lot about golf,” Oxford says. “It instantly took away their credibility as a speaker and after the speech, which was not bad in delivery, all anyone could say was, ‘Can you believe they thought you scored points in golf?’ So know your topics and your audience.”
Presenters also should avoid telling the audience they are nervous — it seems like they need to put a marker down so they won’t be judged.
“Most of the time, they will never know that you are nervous. If you are a professional there to present, it’s part of your job not to be nervous,” Oxford says.
“For me, I find it helps to eliminate stage fright by talking to someone right up until I speak. It helps take my mind off any nervousness,” he adds. “Others find that they need a quiet place to collect their thoughts. Different things work for different people so find what works for you through lots of practice — especially your opening — and make sure you know your topic and, most of all, deliver your speech with authentic energy.”
In the end, it is vital that a presenter keeps speaking, regardless of their stage fright. Even in small presentations, they should try to practice all the skills they need with a larger group.
“Stand up. Command the room. Also, if they can get it in their head that audiences want them to succeed, it’s a huge help,” Sturchio says. “Some of the best presentations I’ve seen have been from people who were scared to death to present. Inevitably, they make the big mistake — forgot a word or a concept. They paused, laughed, acknowledged their mistake. There are relatively only a few people in the world who get to speak to large groups of people. Enjoy it.” I&FMM