There is no cure for presentation stage fright. You can reduce the symptoms with beta blockers, but when the drugs wear off, you're still… you. You're still up there with a cracking voice, runaway heart rate, and nauseating dread.
So what do you do? You read posts with titles like “Ten Tips For Better Presentations”, “Kick-ass With PowerPoint”, and “Public Speaking Secrets of Martin Luther King”. You read excellent books like “Resonate”, “Presentation Zen”, and “Confessions of a Public Speaker.” You Level Up Your Presentation Skills.
You practice practice practice.
You work on your 12-17 seconds of eye contact. You work on your posture, hand-gestures, and VOICE PROJECTION. You watch a thousand hours of TED talks.
You work on your Opening With Humour, your 3-Act Narrative, and your Emotional Hooks.
And since the bar has gone up for even the geekiest conferences today, you work on your evocative-yet-not-cliche graphics, your designer-but-not-default-theme layout, and your clever-yet-clean typography.
But because you are a human, your stage fright now–after working on it so very very hard–is worse.
Nothing cuts stage fright like focusing on the million ways you’re doin’ it wrong.
If you have severe stage fright, the worst way to improve your presentation is to focus on your presentation skills.
Presentation skills are all about YOU. What YOU do. What YOU say. How YOU say it. Stage fright is all about YOU. What they think about YOU. What they tweet about YOU. What they tell everyone in your professional community about YOU.
The Big Problem is… YOU.
Or rather, the problem is thinking that what matters in your presentation is you. Because unless you're a paid performer – musician, comedian, motivational speaker – you are not the reason they came to the conference. They are sitting in your session because of someone that matters far more to them than you: themselves. They are there for their own experiences, and “watching you present” is not one of those experiences.
My path to coping with heart-stopping stage-fright is to focus NOT on what I do but on what they experience. And since I'm a software developer, I’ll think of the audience as my users.
And if they’re my users, then this presentation is a user experience.
And if it's a user experience, then what am I?
Ah... now we’re at the place where stage fright starts to dissolve.
Because if the presentation is a user experience, than I am just a UI.
I am a UI.
And what’s a key attribute of a good UI?
It does not draw attention to itself.
It enables the user experience, but is not itself the experience.
And the moment I remember this is the moment I exhale and my pulse slows. Because I am not important. What is important is the experience they have. My job is to provide a context in which something happens for them.
When you design for a user experience, you quit focusing on your skills and start focusing on their skills. What experience can you help them have? Can you give them a more powerful perspective? Can you give them a new idea with immediate implementation steps they can't wait to work on? Can you give them a clear way to finally explain something to others that they've been feeling but could not articulate? Can you give them a new tip or trick that has such a high-payoff it feels like a superpower? Can you give them knowledge and insight into a tough topic, so they can have more interesting, high-resolution conversations in the hallway?
And now we're truly at the heart of what matters most in a presentation. Look at the previous paragraph of experiences you can help them have. What's the common thread? It's not really about the user experience they have during your presentation. Like your presentation, their experience of it is also just the enabler for something bigger. Because what matters most is NOT the UX but the POST-UX UX. What happens after and as a result of the user experience? The best software and product designers know this. The best game designers know this. The best authors know this. The best filmmakers know this. What happens after what happens happens?
When they walk away from the user experience, then what? Are they different? Are they a little smarter? Are they a little more energized? Are they a little more capable? Are they a little more likely to talk to others about it?
This is no different from the goals we have for any other product/service/tool/book we create for others to use. It is always about the post-UX-UX. Otherwise, we have wasted their precious time and scarce cognitive resources. And when that happens, they will care about our non-optimal presentation skills.
But we still need Minimum Useful Presentation Skills to “be a UI”
We need just enough skills to create the UX that leads to the post-UX UX. And that's a hell of a lot less than what we’ve been told we need. Your users must be able to hear you, so try to not speak too quickly for the room acoustics. They must be able to see what's on the screen, so it's worth paying attention to text and graphic sizes and contrast. And they must be able to stay awake and focused, so it's worth trying to have some sense of pacing and variety, though there's a surprisingly easy presentation hack for this. A hack that violates a lot of the standard presentation slide advice. A key to helping your audience stay focused is to NOT maintain a consistent look and feel.
If you watch my presentations, you'll see my slides frequently shifting from black text on white background to white text on black background. I change fonts. I place the text in different (yes, random) places on the screen from slide to slide. I do almost everything you are NOT supposed to do. I do not make beautiful slides. I often use way too many slides (300+ in my last 1 hour talk).
I have taken this to an extreme that sometimes does get in the way, drawing attention to itself, and that is the one thing I am working to correct. If too many fonts and variations becomes noticeable on its own, then I've just violated the "UI should vanish" rule. The goal is to have enough variety to keep their brain alert, but not so extreme that it draws attention to itself.
And what of the three-act, emotional hook, narrative arc? What about personal stories, appropriate humor, etc.? None of this really matters unless/except in service to the user experience you're designing for. And again, there is a surprisingly simple trick that is usually just as effective as the most artfully-crafted narrative:
Open with a question they would very much like an answer for.
That's it. Pose a question. You don't have to announce you're going to answer it, just… start. If you're looking for an opening phrase, try something like, “Imagine you want to…” and then go. Don't hesitate. And whatever you do, do NOT try to “establish your credibility”. Never try to tell them or sell them on why they should listen to you. If the question is one they want answered, their brain won't let it go. The rest of the presentation is just a steady reveal of the answer(s).
Be the UI
When I give a presentation, whether it's a mega-event keynote or a small intimate meeting, I have one crucial rule: nobody is allowed to introduce me. If they insist, then it must be only my name (though I try to discourage that too). And I do not introduce myself. This has been my rule since my first conference, and not only does it send the message that I (the presenter) am not what matters, it's also a powerful stage-fright reducer. It lets you step up to the podium as a UI rather than The Presenter. This matters.
Because if YOU are a UI, then what is a presenter’s introduction? That annoying splash screen.
If you, like me, struggle with terrifying stage-fright, you might try this: as you prepare a presentation, keep a giant post-it in front of you that says, “YOU ARE JUST A UI”. Keep the focus off of you so you can get on with creating an experience for the people who do matter: your audience. Your users. Because every moment we spend obsessing over how this will make us look is a moment NOT devoted to how our presentation will make them look.