Stumbling over words. Drawing a blank on names. Fumbling with notes and equipment. It's no wonder an estimated 75 per cent of us dread public speaking.
Fortunately, there are ways to help you build confidence when presentation anxiety strikes. The first thing to remember? Presenting often has less to do with what we say than how we say it, said Mark Bowden, an expert in human behaviour and body language.
"We make judgments about each other immediately, and often those gut instincts are based on behaviour alone," he said.
Mr. Bowden's training company, Truth Plane, helps business leaders and politicians to improve their communication and presentation skills.
A client may approach his company after receiving negative feedback from her colleagues. What she may not know, Mr. Bowden said, is that she's not being rejected for her idea, but rather for the way she's delivering the message.
"Even before she's opened her mouth to explain the idea, most people have already decided whether it's a good idea or not. But the content is the only thing that the organization is aware or conscious of. We're not generally conscious of our responses to other people's behaviour delivering that content," Mr. Bowden says.
To improve your body language, and ultimately your ability to deliver confident, polished and professional presentations, Mr. Bowden offered the following seven tips:
1. Think like an athlete.
In the same way a professional athlete is able to move her body in such a way that she gets the result she wants, a business professional should be able to move herself in a way to achieve a certain goal.
2. Know your options.
To get results, whether on the track or in the boardroom, training is required.
"It's very easy for me to decide exactly where to put my hands when talking to an audience, but if I don't know the options, it can be difficult," Mr. Bowden said.
Those who haven't been trained may not know what to do with their hands, he explained, and poor trainers may advise people to let them hang by their sides. But that's just one of many options, Mr. Bowden said. A good trainer will be able to present you with several more appropriate options.
3. Treat your material with respect.
Mr. Bowden provided an example of a client who used to do presentations of financial data to the board of directors. Normally his client would hold the binder at what he called "the grotesque plane" – a position by his side that suggests the quality of the material is not worth holding high. Instead, Mr. Bowden advised his client to start supporting the binder at "the truth plane" or belly height, which immediately sends a message to viewers that the numbers are something of value.
4. Be aware of your surroundings.
If you're planning to sit while presenting, make sure that the seat is set up so you don't have to fumble with it. It sends out an unconscious message to the audience that the speaker knows where all the furniture is and everything has been arranged, Mr. Bowden explained.
5. Take up space.
When you sit down, don't pull in your chair. Give yourself extra room, which signals you're in a position of power, much like the alpha male or female in a group.
6. Be economical with your movement.
If you're turning to a page in the binder, or presenting something on a laptop, make sure everything is bookmarked and cued up. Preparedness means you can flick open the binder or power up the presentation in one swift movement, all the while looking the audience in the eye. What the audience sees is someone who's in total control, economical with their movements and has strong eye contact at all times.
7. You're more important than the data
The audience isn't buying the data, they're buying the person presenting the data, Mr. Bowden said. "If anything was really about the data, we'd never do presentations. … Always keep in mind that when we go live in front of an audience, it's about the event, the personality, the relationship and trust."
Mark Bowden is an expert in human behavior and body language, and creator of TRUTHPLANE™, a communication training company and unique methodology for anyone who has to communicate to an audience with impact. To view Mr. Bowden's TEDxToronto talk, 'The Importance of Being Inauthentic,' click here.