How to overcome 3 powerful challenges for presenters

If you’re someone who hates presenting, you’re not alone. From professional speakers to teachers to giving the toast at a wedding, the thought of speaking in front of an audience makes a lot of people queasy.

Let’s take a dig in and get curious about some of the biggest blocks for presenters and some ways to get passed them.


1. “I’M AN AWKWARD PRESENTER, I HATE SPEAKING IN PUBLIC.”

For most people, this is so much more about preconceived judgment and the lack of preparedness than it is an honest crippling fear of speaking in public. We’re human, no matter what we say we do care what other people think about us.

Whether it’s because we’re masters of procrastinating, overloaded with work, or have had a presentation sprung on us—preparation is often pushed until the last minute and it will bite you in the tush. Working while under-pressure rarely rewards you with your best work. (Tim Urban of Wait But Why illustrates, first hand, the horrors of procrastinating the preparation of his TED talk).

This kind of last-minute attitude is lethal for a presentation.

When you rush your work you start to do one of two things: (1) prepare slides as a script or, (2) focus on the belief that massive amounts of data show due diligence.

These two classic situations bomb for more or less the same reason, in the end, it makes you look like a novice—whether you are or not.

Why, exactly, are these predicaments fatal to presentations?

In a nutshell, they always make you look unprofessional.

First, trying to (not so) secretly use the slides as a script disrupts the rhythm of speaking, takes the focus off the audience and creates some supremely shitty slides. None of which the audience appreciates. Honestly, it’s not worth the stress for either party.

Second, showing all of your work without restraint is unprofessional. There is a time and a place for that; it’s called handouts, and you give them at the end of your presentation, or follow-up with an email link to a PDF file people can download. To do otherwise makes a speaker look unprepared even if they’ve prepared, a lot, they have unwittingly demonstrated that they cannot make choices.

There’s no substitute to being prepared — Denise Duffield-Thomas, author

Both instances show that you’re unprepared and as Denise Duffield-Thomas says, “There’s no substitute for being prepared.”

Everyone groans when you say it, but there is no other way through this other than being prepared. Create thoughtful slide material, know your story, and for the love of your audience—put the time in to rehearse. You will never regret proper preparation because a lot of unexpected things can happen on presentation day that can, and will, make your worst nightmares about public speaking come true.

Chris Andersen of TED recommends you memorize your material to the point where you can recite it while doing something else entirely, like while making dinner. And when you do have all of those last minute thoughts racing through your mind, here are Chris’s recommendations for how to keep it together.

And while you might not be preparing for a TED level talk, that’s no excuse not to prepare like it. This is an investment in time but it is also an investment in yourself that becomes easier each time and soon you have evolved into a natural speaker. You have no reason not to do this.

2. “POWERPOINT IS HORRIBLE AND I CAN’T WORK WITH IT.”

It’s easy to hate PowerPoint because so many of its users feel powerless when using it. Somehow we blame the software for this, and that’s just silliness. You probably didn’t jump into a car and know how to drive—someone taught you. Driving seems intuitive enough and yet there are some terrible drivers out there giving other drivers a bad name. Do we blame the car? No. Then why are we blaming PowerPoint for the user who finds ways not to learn how to work it?

Most often I hear people complain that PowerPoint is responsible for everything coming out uninspired and in bulleted format.

I think, first, we have to understand what PowerPoint’s function is.

PowerPoint’s function is not to teach you the art of graphic design. PowerPoint is the messenger for your thoughts from your computer to another screen and maybe print some handouts (kind of poorly). It provides you with a blank canvas and the tools to deliver your information. What you do with that is up to you. I understand that this can be intimidating and the urge is to just type in a mess of bullets.

But if one of your biggest complaints is that bullets kill audiences, then just because PowerPoint starts you off with a text box that encourages bullet-making doesn’t mean you have to choose to use it. Go freestyle, baby! Just like when we were kids given some scissors and construction paper. There were no rules. Although there are rules to proper design, if you don’t start somewhere, you aren’t going to start at all.

If one of your problems is that PowerPoint seems to be acting out and making your fonts, charts, and colors do crazy things; then turn to Google, for Google is wise and powerful. Type what you’re experiencing something with the program into Google, it has probably happened to someone else which means someone else has probably already gotten the answer to it.

Learn about Color and Font Themes. Those two functions are the basis for most mysterious PowerPoint-based headaches. If you’re unknowingly using part of a determined color scheme and then you paste that slide into a different presentation using a different them… then, yeah, it’s going to look wacky and you’re going to go on a trip to Crazytown. But PowerPoint is only doing it what you told it to do. PowerPoint does not have a personal vendetta against you.

The reality is that unless you learn the program you aren’t going to know how to use it and if you don’t know how to use it you don’t get to complain about it and say it’s the downfall of civilization.

3. “I’M NOT AN ARTIST, YOU’D LAUGH AT HOW BAD MY SLIDES REALLY ARE.”

First of all, no—I wouldn’t.

However, this sentiment is probably the most often repeated statement that I hear from anyone I talk to about presentation work. “Oh, you’d laugh at my slides. They’re just thrown together because I’m an amateur.” You need to eliminate that from your vocabulary because it restricts your raw talents and keeps you from going where you need to be.

Here’s a secret: I didn’t come out of the gate a professional, either. My skills took time and practice to develop. Over 20 years of practice. Oh, man my work sucked. At times, my work still sucks. When your work sucks, that’s called “A Shitty First Draft.” You’re not alone in creating that but you also shouldn’t settle for it. Keep going.

Here’s how you get passed that: you plow through that unholy mess you created to some kind of stopping point. You walk away. You have a drink of water. Maybe a get a snack. Pet your dog.

When you come back, your brain has had a chance to recover from beating yourself up (that part is key), and it’s not so offended at your creation. You discover it’s not half bad. It didn’t hit the nail on the head, but it’s a good start, and you continue from there.

But exactly how do you start to become a better designer when you’re pretty sure you suck? Start with making sure your information is legible and that it makes sense.

Here are some common sense practices:

  • Don’t hit the spacebar 15 times when you can use “TAB” to get the cursor where you need it.

  • Don’t use TAB when you should be using 15 individual text boxes to line up data.

  • If what you created looks like a mess, take the time to straighten it out.

These few things will take you a long way in creating a good slide.

You’re not trying to wow people with your artistry; you’re trying to wow them with your message so let go of that hang-up and focus on the reason why you were asked to speak. Concentrate on getting that knowledge out to the audience in a way that they can comprehend it.

If all you can muster is a white slide with black Arial text with a single statement, that’s perfectly fine, you’re starting to understand how to keep design simple. Mastering simplicity is quite the accomplishment, and you should feel proud of that instead of feeling like you’re somehow lacking and like you suddenly have to start adding drop shadows and bevels to all of the things. In the end, do what’s right for you. The key is to make sure you do it well.

These strategies are a good start to helping to overcome some of the most common and pitfalls of presenting.

Most of all: know your stuff, be relaxed, and have faith that the audience already likes you.

Cindy Caughey

In Good Company Design, Barnstable, MA