Dealing With Stage Fright

Not All of Us Were Born Into Public Speaking

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
I'm writing this from United 123, on my way from Boston to San Francisco. Later today, a couple of us are going to present a new brand strategy to the executive team of a client company. I believe we've done our homework. I'm confident that the thinking and the strategy are good. We've got some beautiful work that we'll be proud to show. But I've learned that it can all fall flat if we don't engage with the audience and bring them along. Once again, it strikes me that in our business, presentation skills can make or break an agency.

To all of you who find public speaking easy and natural, I'm totally envious. I started at the back of the pack, and I've had to work hard to catch up. Years ago I was invited to make a presentation to an industry group. It was so long ago that I had actual slides and loaded them all backward into the projector. My mouth was so dry, I could barely talk. Let's just say I didn't get invited back.

Hey, we all start somewhere, and the important point is to move forward. In my case, I knew if I couldn't learn to speak in front of a crowd, I wasn't going to have much of an agency. That became a powerful incentive to get some experience and get over my stage fright.

One of the most important lessons I learned came from a talented colleague named Karl. He and I were invited to give a series of marketing talks to a group of health-care associations around the country. Karl had one major stumbling block. He stuttered, and at the start of every speech he stood in front of the audience and stuttered through his first sentence. The audience always looked mortified. Then Karl calmly took off his glasses, started talking, and never stuttered again. You could almost hear a sigh of relief from the crowd. The anticipation that Karl might stutter kept them on the edge of their seat. But it never happened. In fact, he was a damn good speaker. I finally broke down and asked Karl whether this was a calculated move on his part. He told me that he feared stuttering more than anything else, and if he stuttered up front, the fear went away.

I used to be afraid that I would forget my entire presentation and stand wordless in front of an audience. It made me dependent on notes and PowerPoint slides, which I knew were a crutch. One day, I just made myself get up in front of a group and start talking. I remember standing speechless for what felt like minutes (although a colleague didn't even notice the pause), and then the words came. Even today, I'll sometimes just pause for a minute before I start to talk, just to assure myself that a moment of silence isn't the end of the world.

Today, I routinely speak to college groups, associations -- not to mention client organizations -- and the most demanding audience of all, our employees. I've also learned a few tricks over the years.

One, you can't prepare enough. I always write out my remarks, and beforehand I mentally rehearse my introduction and close. I flip through my slides, if I have any, and review what I want to say for each one. Then I relax.

Don't forget the small stuff either. Never put ice in your water. You can choke. Look at your slides on a computer in front of you, so you don't keep turning around to see what's on the screen. Talk loud. It gives you more presence. And don't be afraid of the pauses.

Then, there are all the lessons that your mother taught you. Stand up tall. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Make eye contact. If it's not too much trouble, have fun and enjoy yourself. Energy and passion will cover a lot of sins.

If anyone is interested, here's a website that I found with some good presentation tips.

I think I've got time for one more Diet Coke before we land.
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