Conquer Public Speaking Fear: How to Craft Compelling Presentations
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    Conquer Public Speaking Fear: How to Craft Compelling Presentations

    If a looming business pitch, presentation, or toast makes your heart race and hands clammy, you’re certainly not alone. Most studies show the average person ranks the fear of public speaking above the fear of death. We think most fears can be conquered with a little courage and a lot of preparation, so we turned to Matt Abrahams, author of Speaking Up without Freaking Out, co-founder of Bold Echo, LLC, a seasoned lecturer at the Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business to drop his knowledge about creating effective speeches and presentations that will both calm your nerves and move your audience.

    The power of presenting well has become increasingly important to professional success. But guidance on how to project, enunciate, and speak clearly is much more abundant than information on how to create the presentations that will inform your speech. In what follows, I will focus on the three key building blocks of a compelling presentation: audience analysis, structure, and support.

    Audience Analysis

    Contrary to popular belief, every successful presentation should begin with your audience, instead of the topic you’re covering. Many speakers make the mistake of assuming that giving a presentation is about them as speakers. When you prepare a talk from your perspective, you not only miss an opportunity to connect with your audience, but you are likely to make assumptions, use jargon, or skip over ideas that are familiar to you but foreign to your audience.

    Just as effective marketing starts with your target audience,


    effective presenters never ask themselves, “What do I want to say?” Instead, they ask, “What does my audience need to hear?”


    These two questions might sound similar, but they are very different. By embracing an audience-focused approach, you both engage your audience, since you’re giving them what they need, and you will present content that builds their knowledge, helping them understand your message in a way that sets them up to remember and act upon what you say.

    The audience-centric approach does require some extra work. You have to take time to get to know your audience. Ask yourself the following three questions about your audience:

    1. What knowledge and/or past experience(s) have my audience had with my topic?
      If your audience knows about your topic, you can begin at a different place than if they are new to it. Often, you have an audience whose knowledge of your topic varies. In this case, start by notifying your audience that you will take a few minutes at the beginning of your presentation to scaffold the knowledge of those less “in the know” and then you will continue. This approach motivates the neophytes and prepares the more knowing members of your audience that their turn will be coming soon.
    2. What attitudes and emotions do my audience have toward my topic?
      Supportive and excited audiences afford you the opportunity to dive right in and share your thoughts. However, hesitant and resistant audiences require more care up front to reduce their defensiveness. Rather than jump right into your arguments supporting your viewpoint, the best way to start with a skeptical audience is to acknowledge common ground. For example, it is often the case that resistant audiences agree with the overarching goal you are trying to achieve, but disagree on your means. Or, they agree with the benefits you’re espousing, but doubt your road map of how to achieve those benefits. By emphasizing the common goal or benefits, you can potentially convert naysayers or at least encourage them to lower their resistance and listen.
    3. How proximal am I to my audience in terms of organizational status and influence?
      The closer you are to your audience in terms of organizational status (e.g., you are their direct manager), the more concrete your message should be. Similarly, the more remote you are from your audience members (e.g., C-level presenting to line employees), the more abstract and strategic your content should be. Audiences prefer specifics when the presenter has more direct influence over them in day-to-day activities. If you find yourself in this situation, be sure to relay details (e.g., deliverables, deadlines, etc.) that are tied to individuals in your audience.Ultimately, the answers to these questions help you to focus your speaking goal, which will serve as your magnetic north and help ensure that you and your audience stay on track.


    Once you understand your audience, you must next structure your content so your audience can more easily follow you and remember what you say. Having a clear structure and visual presentation tools to support it, will help you and your audience stay on track and help you prepare. Research shows that people retain structured information more reliably and accurately than information that is presented in an unstructured, rambling manner. This is due to what cognitive neuroscientists call processing fluency: Structured information can be more fluently processed with greater fidelity.

    There are many structures that can help you craft the type of presentations to give:

    • Past-Present-Future — good for providing a history, stepping people through a process, or laying out a strategic direction
    • Cause-Effect-Result— good for helping people understand the underlying logic of your position
    • Problem-Solution-Benefit — good for influencing people to support your ideas/plans

    Select the structure that most easily allows you to make your point or tell your story.


    Once you have your structure selected, you can embellish it with detailed evidence, such as data, stories, and testimonials. Be sure to vary the types of evidence you use to support the claims in your presentation. Too often, presenters exclusively use their favorite type of support, such as use cases or definitions. The better approach is to triangulate your support. For example, you could provide a data point embedded in a story that defines one of your main points. This triangulation neatly reinforces your point, and it allows your audience multiple opportunities to connect with your idea and remember it.

    Taken together, audience analysis, structure, and support form the foundation for any connected and compelling presentation. The extra effort and time you spend structuring and supporting your audience-centric presentations will pay big dividends in terms of audience engagement during your presenting and retention after you are done.

    Matt Abrahams is the author of Speaking Up without Freaking Out, a lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and co-founder of Bold Echo, LLC.