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Business/Economy

I always bomb when it comes to presentations – and it’s starting to hurt my career

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: August 13
  • Published August 13

Q: I'm totally intimidated when I stand up in front of a group to give a presentation.

On a good day, a jolt of adrenaline hits me and I speed-talk. On bad days, I open my mouth and nothing comes out. When I finally get started, my thoughts come out jumbled and I forget key sections of what I planned to say. If I'm put on the spot by someone asking a simple question to which I should know the answer, I freeze, making it appear I'm incompetent.

Unfortunately, my job increasingly calls for me to give presentations. My manager has let me know that if I don't improve, I'll get a needs improvement in this area and lose not only on a bonus but possibly a chance for promotion as the expectation of managers in our company is that we be able to present our projects and programs to other groups within the company.

I'm scheduled for one tomorrow. I fear it will be a disaster and need some help.

A: Instead of focusing on what might go wrong, plan what you want to say. Is it important? If so, get over yourself. This change in focus can help you ahead of time by short-circuiting how much time you spend worrying about your jitters and becomes your best strategy for giving a great presentation. Much of a scared presenter's nervousness stems from wondering if he or she'll do well and be able to handle all the questions asked. By concentrating totally on the audience and forgetting yourself you can at least partially forget your worries.

After you've planned what you want to say and in the safety of your own office or home, give your presentation to your office mate or partner, your pup or yourself in front of the mirror at least three to five times. These pre-presentations help, because when you stand up in front of the group, you'll have multiple presentations under your belt.

Also, if you're imagining the worst about your audience — that they'll be a sea of blank or skeptical faces with arms crossed — stop. Audiences hope you'll have something to say and will say it effectively. If you don't believe this, imagine you're in the audience and someone else is presenting. Would you rather the presenter be great or a bomb? Every audience hopes those who present can do so effectively.

Next, pre-emptively provide an antidote to the adrenaline jolt you fear. When under stress, your body instinctively reacts as though it's threatened. Starting about 30 minutes before your speech, adrenaline begins coursing through your bloodstream. You may feel your heart pounding, your muscles tightening and your breathing and perspiration rates increasing. You can process this excess adrenaline by walking. Find every opportunity to walk down the hallway, around the room or make a quick strategic exit to the restroom.

When we stand up to speak, our breathing also becomes rapid and shallow and it becomes more difficult to pull information from memory. This relationship between shallow breathing and memory explains why you space information you know. It's the same as what happens when you meet someone on the street and can't remember the name and then walk off, and the name suddenly pops into your brain. By walking off, you began breathing more deeply. Just before you stand up to speak, concentrate on slowing and deepening your breathing to combat your increasing tension.

Whenever someone asks you a question, use the pause before you answer to slow your breathing and you'll give better answers. You may also want to bring a short information sheet to accompany your presentation as a handout, to facilitate answers to expected questions. To your group, this becomes a bonus. For you, it's a useful crutch.

Finally, if your chance for a promotion depends on a skill you lack, consider finding a personal coach or a group that offers the training you need. When you invest in yourself, it pays off.

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