As you may already know from my previous posts, I am in the final stages of completing my Certified Public Accountant designation. 53 days from now, I will be finished writing my three-day exam (…not that anybody’s counting)! The last course of my curriculum, which I completed this morning, was a group project with a final presentation at the end of the semester that determined whether you passed or failed the entire course.
This all-or-nothing final presentation was extremely nerve-wracking for me because I have always been terrified of public speaking. In fact, in my university days (which seem like ages ago), I would attend the first class of a course I was interested in, check the syllabus out outline, and drop any course that required a presentation in front of classmates. Unfortunately, this was not a possibility in my Certified Public Accounting program.
Depending on your stage of life, you may need public speaking skills for various reasons. If you are in college, or completing other professional training, there’s a strong chance you’re going to have to give graded presentations (hint: do not be like me and miss out on interesting or required courses just because you are terrified to speak!). If you are already well into your career, there’s still a pretty large chance that you will have to speak in front of a group your peers at some point. Whether it be a presentation to a full auditorium or just an informal pitch to your coworkers in a weekly meeting, the anxiety surrounding public speaking can hinder your ability to get ahead and seize opportunities.
My CPA course was eight weeks long, and I was dreading this presentation from the moment I found out it was a requirement. I completed my presentation today (woo! and phew). It went much better than I anticipated! Worrying ended up being a waste of time (like people always say it is) and the anxiety was not worth all the stress pimples. I think it’s only fair that I pass on the tips and tricks that I developed to conquer my fear of speaking in front of an audience.
1. Practice, practice, practice!
Obviously! I haven’t read a lot of public speaking self-help books or articles, but I am going to assume this tip is mentioned in every single one. You can’t expect yourself go onstage (or in front of people) with confidence if you are not feeling prepared. Even if you think you can “wing it,” the nerves may kick in and the words you thought you had may suddenly disappear.
I practiced so much that I had my written script memorized (eventually, the little add-in and filler “winging it” words ended up being part of my memorized script). I knew that knowing my part by heart would decrease the anxiety of stumbling over my words or going blank when trying to make up my presentation as I went.
2. Following a script vs. “winging it.”
I just mentioned that I created a script and memorized it. When I started preparing my presentation, I thought I was going to use what I had written down exactly. But when I started presenting from my original script, word for exact word, it sounded forced and unnatural. So, instead, I started practicing without looking at my written piece. I could “wing it” between my main points and still get the crucial information across without feeling like I was reading off a page.
Even though I started off this “winging it” process by making it up as I went along, I repeated the process so many times that I formed a more natural script through practicing. This script-plus-winging-it hybrid ended up being the final product I used in my presentation.
3. Plan for the worst case scenario.
When discussing my anxiety over this presentation, many people told me I needed to be positive and convince myself I was going to rock my presentation. Although this kind of self-pep-talk has its place (see below), in the days leading up to the presentation, I simply could not convince myself of my competence enough to drown out the nervousness I was feeling.
Surprisingly, I found that determining the worst case scenario and how I would get through it made me feel ten times better. For me, the worst case scenario would be to go blank and forget all of my speech. If this happened, I told myself I would just read directly off of the slides, while looking up every once and while, until the end of my presentation. Even though this is obviously not ideal, it provided a solution to the worst thing that could happen to me up there, behind the podium. There is a lot of comfort in having a plan for the worst.
The absolute best thing you can do before a speaking engagement is to laugh. My group nearly went to the wrong location the morning of our final presentation. Although this mix-up was stressful at the time, we were able to laugh about it once we all made it to the building. Joking with my group beforehand eased all of the tension I had been feeling.
When you are laughing, you are enjoying the moment; you are not thinking about the nerve-wracking moments ahead. Group dynamics may not always be available for speaking engagements, so in the future, I plan to download comedy shows to listen to (and calm myself down with) before a presentation or interview. Laughter is essential.
5. Pep talks
For some people, pep talks may work days before the presentation. This was not my experience. The only time I was able to believe my own pep talks was immediately before I got up to speak. Perhaps this was because I simply had no choice but to believe in myself, get out there, and get the job done. About a minute before I went up to speak, I made sure to tell myself I was going to “rock my presentation” and “kill it out there.” This actually seemed to work in the moment, and I was able to stand up and walk onstage with confidence.
Right before going onstage, the most important two things you can do are to 1) take a deep breath and 2) smile. These small things will calm you down and prepare you to get up and share your knowledge with the audience! Break a leg!
Jodi Paradoski is a full-time accountant and coffee addict who loves animals, taxes, spreadsheets and savings accounts. She recently started her own blog, Economical Girl’s Guide!
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