By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:
- Identify strategies for managing stress and anxiety before and during your presentation
- Utilize techniques for handling unexpected mistakes and surprises during your presentation
- Reflect on your presentation to determine your strengths and areas you can improve
- Provide feedback to other presenters using non-verbal and verbal cues
- non-verbal feedback
- verbal feedback
It’s finally here: presentation day! Hopefully, you are feeling confident because you have already prepared so much; however, maybe you’re still feeling anxious at the idea of speaking in front of your peers. That’s okay! Feeling anxious is perfectly normal.
In this chapter, we will discuss ways to manage that anxiety and how to adapt when things don’t go according to plan. We will also talk about how you can provide feedback to other presenters as well as help you reflect on the presentation process as a whole.
During the Presentation
We want to stress that it is okay to be nervous. It’s a very common response to public speaking. Fortunately, there are many strategies for dealing with your anxiety.
Studies have been done to assess how nervous or stressful people typically get during presentations by examining people’s physiological responses at three intervals:
- one minute before the presentation
- the first minute of the speech
- the last minute of the speech.
They found that nervousness usually peaked at one of these intervals. Which one do you think it is?
They discovered that nervousness usually peaked at the anticipation stage that occurs one minute before the presentation. They also found that as the speech progresses, nervousness tends to go down. If you find yourself feeling this way right before your speech, here are some things you can try:
- Practice/rehearse in similar conditions/setting as your speech
- Be organized
- Think positively
- Analyze your audience
- Adapt your language to speaking style
During the presentation itself, there are four main areas where you can focus attention to manage your anxiety:
- Observing your body’s reaction
- Interacting non-verbally with the audience
- Keeping a sense of humour
- Using common stress management techniques
Observing your Body’s Reaction
Physical movement helps channel some of the excess energy that your body produces in response to anxiety. If at all possible, move around the front of the room rather than remaining imprisoned behind the lectern or gripping it for dear life (avoid pacing nervously from side to side, however). Move closer to the audience and then stop for a moment. If you are afraid that moving away from the lectern will reveal your shaking hands, hold on to your note card. This will give your hands something to do. Other options include performing vocal warm-ups right before your speech, having water (preferably in a non-spillable bottle with a spout) nearby for dry mouth, and doing a few stretches before going on stage.
Deep breathing will also help to counteract the effects of excess adrenaline. Like we saw in our note card examples, you can place cues or symbols in your notes, such as “slow down” or ☺ that remind you to pause and breathe during points in your speech. It is also a good idea to pause a moment before you get started to set an appropriate pace from the onset. Look at your audience and smile. It is a reflex for some of your audience members to smile back. Those smiles will reassure you that your audience members are friendly.
Interacting Non-verbally with the Audience
During your speech, make a point of establishing direct eye contact with your audience members. By looking at individuals, you establish a series of one-to-one contacts similar to interpersonal communication. An audience becomes much less threatening when you think of them not as an anonymous mass but as a collection of individuals.
A gentleman once shared his worst speaking experience: right before starting his speech, he reached the front of the room and forgot everything he was supposed to say. When asked what he saw when he was in the front of the room, he gave a quizzical look and responded, “I didn’t see anything. All I remember is a mental image of me up there in the front of the room blowing it.” The moral of this story is that speaking anxiety becomes more intense if you focus on yourself rather than concentrate on your audience and your material.
Keeping a Sense of Humour
No matter how well we plan, unexpected things happen. That fact is what makes public speaking so interesting. When the unexpected happens to you, do not let it rattle you.
Here’s an example. At the end of a class period late in the afternoon of a long day, a student raised her hand and asked the professor if he knew that he was wearing two different coloured shoes, one black and one blue. He looked down and saw that she was right; his shoes did not match. He laughed at himself, complimented the student on her observational abilities, and moved on with the important thing, the material he had to deliver. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.
Stress Management Techniques
Even when we use positive thinking and are well prepared, some of us still feel a great deal of anxiety about public speaking. When that is the case, it can be more helpful to use stress management than to try to make the anxiety go away.
Here are two main tools that can help:
- Visualization: imagining the details of what a successful speech would look and sound like from beginning to end; a way of hypnotizing yourself into positive thinking by using your mind’s eye to make success real.
- Systematic desensitization: Gradual exposure to the thing that causes fear—in this case, giving a speech—can ultimately lead to decreased anxiety. Basically, the more practice you get speaking in front of people, the less fear and anxiety you’ll have about public speaking. Organizations like Toastmasters that help people confront their fears by providing a supportive environment to learn and practise is a good option if you have a true phobia around presenting or public speaking. There’s even a student club you can join at the University of Saskatchewan!
A Note about Microphones
If you are using a microphone during your speech, there are a few potential issues to be aware of. First, make sure you do a sound check and that you know how the microphone works—how to turn it on and off, how to mute it, and how to raise or lower it. If possible, have it positioned to the height you need before you go onstage. Make sure the microphone does not block your face.
If you will be using a clip-on microphone (called a lavaliere mic), you’ll need to wear something with a lapel or collar that it can be clipped to. Make sure your hair and jewelry are out of the way to avoid rustling noises, and place the microphone 8 to 10 inches below your chin.
Finally, do not get too close to the microphone. Many people stand too close to the mic and end up hunched over it, creating bad posture and an uncomfortable position. If you get too close, the mic will pick up your breathing as well as your words and can also create that screeching feedback that will make your audience jump in their seats. Doing a sound check and getting comfortable with the equipment before you go onstage will prevent the majority of errors when using a microphone.
Coping with Mistakes and Surprises
Even the most prepared speaker will encounter unexpected challenges from time to time. Here are a few strategies for combating the unexpected in your own presentations.
Speech Content Issues
What if a note card goes missing or you unintentionally skip important information at the beginning of your speech? While situations like these might seem like the worst nightmare of a novice public speaker, they can be easily overcome. Pause for a moment to think about what to do. Is it important to include the missing information, or can it be omitted without hindering the audience’s ability to understand your speech?
If it needs to be included, does the information fit better now or in a later segment? If you can move on without the missing element, that is often the best choice, but pausing for a few seconds to decide will be less distracting to the audience than sputtering through a few “ums” and “uhs.” Situations like these demonstrate why it’s a good idea to have a glass of water with you when you speak. Pausing for a moment to take a sip of water is a perfectly natural movement, so the audience may not even notice that anything is amiss.
Technology has become a very useful aid in public speaking, allowing us to use audio or video clips, presentation software, or direct links to websites. It does break down occasionally, though! Web servers go offline, files will not download, or media content may be incompatible with the computer in the presentation room. Always have a backup plan in case of technical difficulties. As you develop your speech and visual aids, think through what you will do if you cannot show a particular graph or if your presentation slides are garbled. Your beautifully prepared chart may be superior to the verbal description you can provide, but your ability to provide a succinct verbal description when technology fails will give your audience the information they need and keep your speech moving forward.
Unfortunately, one thing that you can’t control during your speech is audience etiquette, but you can decide how to react to it. Inevitably, an audience member will walk in late, a cell phone will ring, or a car alarm will go off outside. If you are interrupted by external events like these, it is often useful and sometimes necessary to pause and wait so that you can regain the audience’s attention.
Whatever the event, maintain your composure. Do not get upset or angry about these glitches. If you keep your cool and quickly implement a “plan B” for moving forward, your audience will be impressed.
Reading Your Audience
Recognizing your audience’s mood by observing their body language can help you adjust your message and see who agrees with you, who doesn’t, and who is still deciding. With this information, you can direct your attention—including eye contact and questions—to the areas of the room where they can have the most impact.
As the speaker, you are conscious that you are being observed. But your audience members probably don’t think of themselves as being observed, so their body language will be easy to read.
Question-and-answer sessions can be trickier to manage than the presentation itself. You can prepare for and rehearse the presentation, but audience members could ask a question you hadn’t considered or don’t know how to answer. There are three important elements to think about when incorporating Q&A’s as part of your presentation:
- Audience Expectations
- Timing of Q&As
- Knowing How to Respond
At the beginning of your speech, give the audience a little bit of information about who you are and what your expertise on the subject is. Once they know what you do (and what you know), it will be easier for the audience to align their questions with your area of expertise—and for you to bow out of answering questions that are outside of your area.
Timing of Q&A’s
Questions are easier to manage when you are expecting them. Unless you are part of a panel, meeting, or teleconference, it is probably easier to let the audience know that you will take questions at the end of your presentation. This way you can avoid interruptions to your speech that can distract you and cause you to lose time. If audience members interrupt during your talk, you can then ask them politely to hold on to their question until the Q&A session at the end.
Knowing How to Respond
Never pretend that you know the answer to a question if you don’t. The audience will pick up on it! Instead, calmly apologize and say that the question is outside of the scope of your knowledge but that you’d be happy to find out after the presentation (or, suggest some resources where the person could find out for themselves).
If you are uncertain about how to answer a question, say something like “That’s really interesting. Could you elaborate on that?” Such a response will make the audience member feel good because they have asked an interesting question, and it will give you a moment to comprehend what they are asking.
Sometimes presenters rush to answer a question because they are nervous or want to impress. Pause for a moment, before you begin your answer, to think about what you want to say. This approach will help you to avoid misinterpreting the question, or taking offense to a question that is not intended that way.
A final tip is to be cautious about how you answer, so that you don’t offend your audience. You are presenting on a topic because you are knowledgeable about it, but your audience is not. It is important not to make the audience feel inferior because there are things that they don’t know. Avoid comments such as “Oh, yes, it’s really easy to do that…” Instead, say something like “Yes, that can be tricky. I would recommend…” Also, avoid a bossy tone. For example, phrase your response with “What I find helpful is…” rather than “What you should do is…”
Evaluating a Speech
Feedback is an essential part of the presentation experience. It is often said that we are our own worst critic. Many people are hard on themselves and may exaggerate how poorly a speech or presentation went. Other times, there’s not much exaggeration. In both cases, it helps to do a post-examination of your performance as a presenter.
For your RCM 200 presentation, you will be asked to provide feedback on how you think your presentation went as well as provide feedback to your classmates.
In the 30-60 second reflective debrief following your , give yourself a moment to reflect with your professor and fellow students about how your speech went. Taking time to reflect after a stressful experience is one way to build your lifelong learning skills, and can help you grow your public speaking skills that much quicker.
One reflective method to consider the What? So what? Now what? framework. The video below will explain this framework:
|What?||What did you do in your speech? Did you say everything you wanted to say? Did you forget anything?|
|So what?||What did you wish you could have done differently in your speech? Is there anything that you are especially proud of doing in your speech? Did anything surprise you about the experience?|
|Now what?||How has this experience changed your mind about public speaking? How will knowing what you know now change your future public speaking experiences?|
To provide a slightly more objective approach to analyzing the delivery of your speech or presentation, consider the following questions:
- Did you make the most of your unique voice? Did the audience seem to understand you?
- Did you make the most of using body language? Did your body confidently support what you were saying?
- Did you use a coherent structure? Did the audience seem to make sense of your presentation? Was it logical?
- Did you show enthusiasm? Did you show the audience you cared about your presentation?
- Did you demonstrate expertise? Did you show your credibility by citing reliable sources and making a distinction between facts and your opinion?
- Did you show you practised and prepared? Did your confidence show because you implemented a plan that included sufficient rehearsal, contingency plans, and other success strategies?
Honestly asking yourself these questions with the intention of uncovering your strengths and weaknesses should help you to become a better presenter. While it is important to review other kinds of feedback, whether from the audience, your peers, or an instructor, it is also useful to have a realistic understanding of your own performance. This understanding is part of gaining experience and improving as a presenter.
Feedback as an Audience Member
Audience members are vital in helping speakers understand how they are doing both during and after the presentation. In the public speaking rounds you will have the chance to practice your skills and the concept of conscious listening. Knowing what it feels like to be on stage is often motivation enough for many people to give or .
Your instructor will guide the evaluation sessions and will provide some prompting questions to help you give some constructive feedback to your classmates. Part of your professionalism mark will be determined by your participation in being a good audience member for your classmates’ speeches.
With the above video in mind, let’s look at how you can provide non-verbal and verbal feedback to a speaker.
Effective listening is more than just using your ears. In fact, Boothman (2008) recommends listening with your whole body, not just your ears. Consider how confident you would feel speaking to a room full of people with their eyes closed, arms and legs crossed, and bodies bent in slouches. These listeners are presenting non-verbal cues communicating that they are uninterested and unimpressed. Meanwhile, listeners sitting up straight, facing you with an intent look on their face, are more likely to offer reassurance that the speaker’s words are being understood.
Eye contact is another non-verbal cue to the speaker that you are paying attention. You don’t want to be bug-eyed and unblinking; the speaker might assume there is a tiger behind them and begin to panic as you seem to be doing. However, attentive eye contact can indicate you are listening and help you to stay focused too. There are some cultures where maintaining eye contact would cause discomfort, so keep that in mind. Also, you may be someone who listens better with eyes closed to visualize what is being said. This can be difficult for a speaker to recognize, so if this is you, consider incorporating one of the following non-verbals while you listen with eyes closed.
Nodding your head affirmatively and making responses such as “Yes,” “Umhum,” or “OK” can help the speaker gauge your interest. Even the speed of your head nod can signal your level of patience or understanding (Pease & Pease, 2006). Leaning in as a listener is far more encouraging than slumping in your seat. Nevertheless, sending too many non-verbal responses to the speaker can go wrong, too. After all, a conference room full of people shifting in their seats and nodding their heads may translate as a restless audience that the speaker needs to recapture.
While speakers sometimes want all questions held until the end of a presentation, asking questions when the opportunity presents itself can help you as a listener. For one, you have to listen in order to be able to ask a question. Your goal should be to ask open-ended questions (“What do you think about….?” rather than “We should do …, right?”). You can use questions to confirm your understanding of the speaker’s message. If you’re not entirely sure of a significant point, you might ask a clarifying question. These are questions such as “What did you mean?” “Can you be more specific?” or “What is a concrete example of your point?” Such questions can help your comprehension while also offering the speaker feedback. When asking questions, approach the speaker in a positive, non-threatening way. A good listener doesn’t seek to put the speaker on the defensive. You want to demonstrate your objectivity and willingness to listen to the speaker’s response.
Finally, paraphrasing what has been said in your interactions with the speaker can be another useful tool for a good listener. Imagine the difference if, before you respond to an upset colleague, you take a moment to say, “I understand you are disappointed we didn’t consult you before moving forward with the product release…” before you say, “we didn’t have time to get everyone’s input.” Reflecting back the speaker’s point of view before responding allows the speaker to know you were listening and helps foster trust that everyone’s voice is being heard.
|Non-Verbal Feedback (constructive)||Verbal Feedback (constructive)|
|Listen with whole body||Ask open-ended questions|
|Use appropriate eye contact||Questions confirm understanding of message|
|Nod affirmatively (mmm hmm, yes, OK)||Ask clarifying questions (can you give an example of/did you mean…)|
|Use listener’s lean||Use paraphrasing to demonstrate accurate understanding|
|Non-Verbal Feedback (not constructive)||Verbal Feedback (not constructive)|
|Closed body position||Asking closed questions|
|No eye contact||Asking questions that don’t relate to speaker’s message|
|Inattentive, distracted (playing with phones, engaging in side conversations etc.)||Asking rhetorical questions|
|Slumping, yawning||Making your own speech instead of asking a question|
Being open to receiving feedback is the only way to have a better picture of your performance as a presenter or speaker. Combining self-analysis with the feedback of your audience or peers is your opportunity to better understand your strengths as a presenter and what resonated well with your audience.
It may be a bit more uncomfortable to look at things that did not go well, or receive feedback that’s judgemental, biased, or otherwise laden with emotion. When receiving and making sense of feedback, it is very important to be self-aware and honest with yourself. This honesty will help you distinguish between an environmental situation, a situation that lies with the audience member, or a situation with the presenter.
- It is okay to be anxious about public speaking. Fortunately, there are many strategies you can use to help you before and during the presentation. Coming to your speech prepared will make a huge difference. During the speech, however, you try things like observing your bodies reaction and interacting non-verbally with the audience.
- After your speech is done, you should reflect on what went well and areas where you can improve. You can do this by using the “What? So What? Now What?” framework, or considering the questions outlined in this chapter.
- Once your speech is done, you still have responsibilities as an audience member. As you listen to a person’s speech, be mindful of the and you are showing.
Boothman, N. (2008). How to make people like you in 90 seconds or less. NY: Workman Publishing.
Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). The definitive book of body language. New York: Bantam Books.
This chapter is adapted from “Professional Communications” by Olds College (on Open Library). It is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
a type of speech delivery that is carefully planned and rehearsed, but uses minimal notes and is spoken in a conversational manner
engaging with the speaker and the material you hear in an active way, such as by asking questions, paraphrasing ideas, and listening without judgement
a type of feedback where you use your whole body to provide information to a speaker. Some examples include leaning your body in, using eye contact, and nodding affirmatively
a type of feedback where you ask specifics types of questions to help guide the speaker. These include open-ended questions, clarifying questions, and questions that confirm understanding