First I was afraid, I was petrified…

Keynote speak at TechEd EMEA 2007

Keynote speak at TechEd EMEA 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seemed like a long time before I heard my introduction. I threaded my way through the round tables surrounded by delegates. I took special care when I stepped up onto the stage. The last thing I wanted to do was fall over and make a tit of myself in front of hundreds of people. I took my place and turned to face the audience. They stretched off into the distance. Behind me were giant screens showing my presentation and I had a gizmo in my hand to work the slide deck.

I started my presentation. I could hear my voice, small and trembling, amplified by the lapel microphone. Why was my voice trembling? My heart started to bounce around my ribcage at alarming speed. words tumbled out at a million miles an hour. It was only then I realised how nervous I was. Although I was no stranger to presentations, my subconscious mind decided that this one was different and a sensible survival strategy was escape at the earliest opportunity.

This was the first presentation I gave to a large audience and as I made the long walk back to my seat, I convinced myself that I made a mess of it. During the breakout session afterwards, someone sought me out and congratulated me for doing a good job. I gracefully accepted her praise, but inside I was far from convinced. But she wasn’t alone. By the end of the day, I had praise from quite a few.

This taught me a few things. Firstly, no matter how nervous you are, it never looks as bad as you think to your audience. Despite the little voice inside your head telling you otherwise, they are not waiting for you to make a fool of yourself. They want you to succeed. Even if they do detect any nerves, they are more interested in what you have to say. The other thing I learned that day is to never, ever let your boss persuade you to ditch the presentation you prepared and practised to rewrite it the night before showtime.

As soon as another opportunity to present to a large audience came up, I grabbed it. It was important to me that I improved. My voice still trembled, and so did my hand which wasn’t good because I had a hand-held microphone this time. It was most disconcerting to see it wobbling around right in front of me. I managed to slow down though and I was much happier with the presentation.

Nowadays – I’m relaxed about presenting on stage to large audiences. I still get nervous and I think I always will, but it all adds to the spice of life.


3 comments on “First I was afraid, I was petrified…

  1. I agree. Presenting to large audiences is both exciting and petrifying. I do vividly remember my first time: presenting at the PMI Congress in Cannes – France in 2001. There is such a thing as too much preparation: I had prepared my jokes, I had prepared my speech, I knew it almost by heart. I was hoping for a small audience. The room was bursting at the seems. A sea of people. Then the disconcerting detail: I was told by the organisers I would have a lectern on which I could put my notes. There was nothing on stage. I had to do with a handheld microphone and nowhere to put my notes on. Unlike yours, the result was not good. I spent 45 minutes stiff in my suit talking like a robot. Stopping now and again to re-shuffle my notes. I got a polite applause. The audience feedback was not good, and I was not happy with myself. The gap between my fantasized performance and the reality was painful. But I still liked the buzz of presenting, and, just like you, I wanted to improve. And I did, becoming specifically addicted to the UK Oracle User Group annual conference in Birmingham. It became better and better. Ironically, my best performance was when I was asked to stand in for a colleague at short notice: 2 days before the event, I was asked to present on CRM, a subject I was far from being an expert in, with slides which were not mine. In a strange way, this was liberating. Knowing full well that my competence was limited, I had to rely solely on stage performance. And it was a great performance, my jokes were improvised and got the auditorium in stitches, my demonstrations were flawless, my delivery was convincing. I was having the time of my life! Even the Q&A session went well. At the end, I was drained, but ecstatic. I had closed the gap between my fantasized performance and reality! The written feedback confirmed my experience, they loved it.
    This specific experience taught me something about presenting, at conferences particularly: above all, people want to be entertained. In most cases, they have already spent a few hours in presentations in sometimes overheated rooms, lunch time trying to network etc. By the time you start, never mind about the content, if you do not bring life into your presentation, they’ll switch off.
    You are right, the audience wants you to succeed, and also the audience wants to be part of it: sharing the joke, getting some audience participation, this all works well and is easier than you fear. Of course the presentation should remain professional and the audience needs to have something to take away. But to get your message across, you need to get the audience to want to listen to you first.

    Sorry, this comment is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter… 🙂

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