Standing in front of a group to deliver a presentation can feel like every wall in a room is closing in around you. Next thing you know, you’re ready to make a run for the door before you even get started. Maybe you’re nervous about the way you look or maybe you’re dealing with the stress of uncertainty. Whatever you’re worried about, recognize this, preparation breeds confidence. For anyone looking to persuade people to take action, public speaking is a skill you need to master.

As a leadership trainer, I’ve delivered talks and workshops in cities in the United States and Africa, here’s what I know for sure: things will happen that you can’t control. However, knowing your content, anticipating audience questions, and practicing delivering your presentation can minimize the impact of a surprise. 

Ready to rock your next presentation? Here are a few tips to help you feel confident and leave a lasting impression. 

Challenge and Change Your “What if” Story

No matter how many times I deliver a presentation, I always overwhelm myself with “what if” stories — especially the night before my talk. I’ve learned to turn my “what if” anxiety into a “to-do list” to problem solve ahead of time. The trick is to only focus on things you can control. For instance: 

    • What if I have Wi-Fi issues, my computer shuts down, or powerpoint freezes? While speaking on a panel in Nigeria, the electricity went out. This was a lesson for me to always be prepared for tech issues but don’t let it derail my message. First, know the sequence of your slides. Also, I always store three backups of my presentation on an external thumb drive, Google drive, and then I email myself a copy. Lastly, print a paper copy of your presentation. 
    • What if I have trouble with a teleprompter? If necessary, use 3X5 index cards to capture your key messages, statistics, and facts. A 3X5 index card forces you to be concise. 

Make it About Your Audience, Not You

At the core of presentation skills is the art of connecting with people. Typically when you walk into a room to deliver a presentation, people are thinking 1 of 3 things: 

    • What’s in it for me? 
    • What does this mean for my team? 
    • How can you improve my life in some way? 

The more you know about what your audience wants, what they don’t want, and their daily struggles and fears, the more you can win them over.  

Also, what memories, historical events, passions, interests, views, common culture or even TV shows do you have in common? Typically, you have about a 30-second window to capture your audience’s attention, so include the commonalities between you and your audience in the first few moments of your presentation. 

Network Before Your Presentation

Whether I’m delivering a large group presentation or small group workshop, I arrive at my location at least 45 minutes to an hour early. That way, I can engage people in conversation, and get comfortable with my speaking environment. Forming a connection with your audience beforehand reduces anxiety and makes it easier for you to connect with individuals during your presentation. 

Tell a Compelling Short Story to Earn Trust and Gain Buy-in

Seth Godin said it best: “Don’t memorize your talk. Memorize your stories.” Consider the following techniques: 

    • Instead of beginning your presentation with your job title and competencies, share a story that highlights a conflict related to your topic or aha moment in your life or career.

 Here are a few sentence starters:

      • One of the lessons that’s taken me the longest to learn is…
      • I’ll never forget the time when….
      • I have a confession to make…
      • Introduce a “What if” or “Imagine if” scenario. 
    • Instead of using statistics and facts to persuade people, tell short stories and come up with analogies to support your topic. Your analogy should relate to something you’re talking about or audience level of knowledge. For instance, in 2001 when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, instead of talking about the specs and speed of the mobile device, he said, “it’s 1,000 songs in your pocket.” 

Read Non-verbal Cues From Your Audience

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge looks of surprise, fear, or raised eyebrows. For instance:

    • “I see a few confused faces in the room….”
    • “Surprising, right?”

Make Mental Friends Throughout the Room

As your speaking, find a few people in the audience who nod in agreement or seem genuinely interested in your message. Make random eye contact, and smile and act as if you’re speaking to them as individuals rather than one huge audience. 

When it comes to preparing to win people over in a presentation, sometimes, public speaking anxiety stems from a fear of not being in control. It’s not about waiting for your feelings of fear to go away. It’s about working through them by preparing for your moment. The more you practice, the more you’ll feel ready.