“Perfection belongs to the Gods; the most that we can hope for is excellence.”
- Carl Jung
Image courtesy Unsplash
Do you think Perfection is overrated? I do. If I waited to write until I had the perfect words, I would not be able to write, ever. But, isn’t that what stops most people from doing anything they desire? The need to be perfect takes away your freedom to make mistakes and seeks the impossible-the “perfect performance”. You then feel like a failure when you fall short, and it stops you from reaching for the sun. The first time you try anything and fail, you are afraid to attempt it the second time.
Have you seen an infant fall on her face when she tries to take her first step? No child walks without falling once or more. What would happen if the infant decided walking is not really ‘her cup of tea’ and stopped making an effort? How many of us have seen infants cry or with just a whimper, pull themselves back to their feet and take the next step with a chuckle? Almost all of us have been through that same experience as a child, ourselves, isn’t it? When we were able to fall on our face over and over again, pick ourselves up as a child, and walk ahead, did we stop fearing the fall? Or did we walk despite the fear? As important as the fall is and the learnings from it, more crucial is the “The Second Step” when we rise from the fall.
One area where people fear to tread the “Second Step” is in the field of Presentations and Public Speaking. According to national surveys and research, fear of public speaking ranks among the top dreads, surpassing even the fear of death, itself. So, when do you think this fear begins?
It usually starts in childhood at home or at school. Can you go back to a time in your childhood when you had an opportunity to speak or recite in front of a group of people? As you started to talk, maybe you froze, or forgot your words, or made a mistake. The fear creeps in when someone reprimands you then, or other kids laugh at your expense. This fear then grows with you into adulthood. The fear and anxiety get accentuated when your first presentation as an adult does not go the way you wanted. Commonly, People then shy away from presentations or experience the same set of fears and anxieties every time they present. The challenge then, is how does one take the Second step after a disastrous first speech, despite the fear?
There are three simple secrets to take the second step, despite your fears and nerves.
1. Change the state: When a negative thought or belief comes up, replace it with a positive one. Changing the internal self-talk from “I am nervous” to “I feel good” or “I feel confident” can help. A simple practice that has helped me is seeing a mental picture of me delivering the first few lines of my presentations in a confident voice. I usually watch this movie at least a few times before I go on stage. You can also change the state by shifting the focus from going inwards to focusing on the audience. A practice useful for me is reaching the event an hour or two earlier and interacting with a few of the audience members. I then feel that I can relate to the audience very well.
2. Internalize, do not memorize: An awe-inspiring presenter like Steve Jobs would approach keynote presentations as an actor in a theatrical production according to Ken Kocienda, former principal engineer of iPhone software who worked alongside Jobs. Steve Jobs would internalize what each line meant to him and to the audience. According to Kocienda, “He worked on the pace, on using his voice, his body and his gestures”. For great speakers, the presentations are never about them. It is about the audience and what they walk away with. You can internalize by starting from the basics: focus on the audience, engage in a dialogue; practice your message using your voice, body, and that means rehearsing aloud. Constant practice is about doing it right. The fringe benefit to continuous practice is that it happens automatically and you internalize.
3. Be an intentional sponge: Do you know that the best watch and learn from the best? Working on oneself by intentionally sponging inspiration from others can improve the way you present, and you will start seeing possibilities as to how you can take your presentation to the next level. Who are your favourite teachers, coaches, mentors from whom you could learn? The fantastic thing is you can get inspiration from anyone and anything and apply it to your presentations. One thing I learnt from my teachers is the value of time, and I use it in my talks to always complete it within time. So, who are you sponging from? Do your homework to learn about the specific elements of presentations that you need to work on. Look for people from who you can learn. Learn one skill and use it. There, you have started absorbing inspiration.
Remember that your presentation will never be the best the first time you present, or the second time or the twenty-second time. It is a work in progress. But what will happen is you will get more polished, more confident, more focused on connecting and engaging the audience. Just take the time to notice how easy it is, to take the next step after the fall when you know that Perfection is a myth.
Excellence may be in short supply, but there is a high demand for it.
So, are you ready to take the Second step and excel at making presentations?