Monthly Archives: January 2008

Never tell your audience you are nervous!

Never apologize to an audience before you speak. Never say things like: “I am nervous about public speaking” or “I am new at this topic. So please bear with me.”  

Let’s face it: If you are truly nervous, the audience will soon find out. So telling them beforehand is nto going to help you.


The irony is that very often we feel a lot more nervous inside than it is shown outside. Even the best speakers feel a bit nervous before speaking but they don;t show it. Likewise, your audience may not even know that you are nervous. So why confess? Remember: We are often the harshest judge of our own performance.  

When you apologize at the outset by saying that you are new at the topic, you are telling your audience to expect a bad presentation. You are telling your audience not to listen to you. In fact, you are destroying your own credibility before you have a chance to demonstrate you have it. This is like going to battle and telling your enemy that you are weak and asking him to slaughter you. Does not make any sense at all.


There are more practical tips in my book.

Names, jargon and buzzwords

Here is an interesting story from Richard Feynman – the late world-famous  physicist. When he was a boy, one of his friends was bragging that he knew the name of a particular bird and laughed at Feynman for being “ignorant”. Feynman recalled what his father told him:

“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts.”

This is a wonderful approach to learning and presentation. Many people have a habit of dropping names or using technical jargon in their presentation – thinking that would impress the audience with their “knowledge”.

It is just like Feynman’s childhood friend who thought he knew something about the bird simply because he knew its name.  

The disasterous consequence of bullet points – a real life example

When the Columbia space shuttle broke up upon re-entry to earth in 2003, the President appointed the Columbia Accident Investigation Board(CAIB) to look into the causes.  

As part of the investigation, the Board looked into how engineers and contractors at the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) transmit their technical information to their management.  When NASA discovered that a piece of foam had fallen off the shuttle during take off and had impacted its wing, a team of engineers and scientists began a series of analyses to assess any risk that such impact would have upon re-entry. The concern was that the damage done to the wing during take off might impair its ability to withstand the tremendous heat that would be generated when the shuttle began its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. That turned out to the fatal cause of the incident.   

On Day Nine of the mission, the engineering team presented the results of its risk assessment findings to NASA management in a PowerPoint presentation while the shuttle was still in space. One of the critical slides used in the presentation contained six levels of hierarchy. The Board hired Dr. Edward Tufte – a Yale Professor who is an expert in information presentation – to analyze that particular PowerPoint slide (shown on the right).

 According to the Board, important engineering information was either “filtered out or lost in the small prints within the bullet points.”  

The CAIB further concluded as follows: “When engineering analyses and risk assessments are condensed to fit on a standard form or overhead slide, information is inevitably lost. In the process, the priority assigned to information can be easily misrepresented by its placement on a chart and the language that is used. . . . As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analyses to mid-level managers to high-level managers, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation. . . . The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical reports as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.” 

The Board also observed that “generally, the higher information is transmitted in the hierarchy, the more it gets ‘rolled up,’ abbreviated, and simplified. Sometimes information gets lost altogether, signals drop from memos, problem identification systems, and formal presentations. The same conclusions, repeated over time, can result in problems eventually being deemed non-problems”.  

One avenue by which information gets “rolled up” and confused – according to the Board –  was through the technology of PowerPoint presentations.

Connecting with your audience

One of Tom Peters’ presentation tips is “By hook or by crook..connect, connect and connect” with your audience. There are many ways you can achieve that. The most obvious one is to maintain eye contact with the audience by NOT reading your notes. Talk to them the same way you talk to your friend.





Another way is to relate to your audience’s experience by telling stories. Remember: every presentation is a story. You connect with them by sharing part of your experience that is similar to theirs.





For example, when I give my 2-day presentation on environmental regulation (a potentially deadly dull subject) to an audience made up of environmental managers, I relate to them by telling them the failures and successes that I had when I was a corporate environmental manager. I connect with them through a shared road map of our past. I was experiencing the same challenges that they are having now. That’s where the connection occurs. As a result, I am able to make a deadly dull subject sound interesting to the audience.


Contrast this approach to that taken by many attorneys before the same audience. The attorneys cite regulations ad nausea because many of them have never visited a factory or have to be responsible for compliance in a corporate setting. They have no stories to tell that the audience can relate to. On top of that, these attorneys show up in full business suits when there is not a single tie in the meeting room. 

 You just can’t connect this way.     

How to overcome your fear of public speaking

nervous manIt is perfectly natural to feel a bit nervous before making a presentation. Even a seasoned professional may feel a butterfly in his/her stomach. There are two main reasons we feel nervous before we speak to a new audience. If we feel uncomfortable or are not very familiar with the subject at hand, we get nervous. We don’t know if we can handle a question from the audience.  If we don;t know the audience at all, we feel a bit unease.

The best way to deal with these two main causes is very simple. Learn your subject well and get to know the audience before your presentation. Make sure you know the subject as well as you know the back of your hand. Gather as much background information as possible about the subject so that your self confidence is high. You don’t include all your knowledge in your presentation. You keep it in your head.

Get to know your audience before you speak. Mingle with the crowd if possible. Engage in small talk with individual members of the audience. Once you have done that, the audience will cease to become “total strangers” to you and it will be easier for you to “have a conversation” with the audience when you are making your presentation.