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I recently coached a really sharp and personable senior high tech executive. His communication is impeccable…in conversation. But when he has to get up in front of others for a big presentation of group meeting, that’s where his trouble begins. Like most of us, he gets nervous when presenting. His anxiety is most acute at the beginning of his presentations. He told me it feels like a white-hot spotlight is shining on him and all eyes are watching his every move. He is not alone in feeling hypersensitive when commencing his communication. Communication scholars have identified this “confrontation” stage as the point in time when anxious speakers are most nervous. This confrontation stage tends to last only a few minutes before most speakers begin to relax and hit their groove.

Beyond using the techniques I have documented for managing the sources and symptoms of speaking anxiety (see my book and other blogs), he and I together created a series of ploys he can use to diffuse his initial anxiety and help accelerate his comfort level that comes a few minutes into his being on stage. All of these techniques involve sharing the spotlight with others, so you as a speaker stand out less.

  1. Have someone else start for you. If you are delivering a keynote or invited talk, have someone introduce you and “clear the runway” so you can take off smoothly. After you are introduced, you can engage in banter with your introducer as a way of warming yourself up.
  2. Create a common experience that you and your audience share. A great technique is to start with a video clip. When the video ends, you and your audience can discuss it. This takes the pressure off of you to lead. You simply facilitate the conversation and provide commentary as a way of starting.
  3. Ask questions. Questions by their very nature are dialogic – two way. By asking polling or even rhetorical questions, you engage the audience and have them do something other than scrutinize you. Further, you can comment on their real (if a polling question) or potential (if a rhetorical one) responses. This again allows you to start your presentation in the role of facilitator, rather than presenter.

For the executive I worked with, he found using video clips to be very helpful. He liked starting from the same place as his audience and hearing from them before they heard from him. To this day, he starts his division meetings with some shared experience activity. Try each of these techniques out and see if they help you feel less nervous in your presenting. By sharing the spotlight, you can feel more confident sooner and deliver a more compelling, authentic manner.