By Lisa Heay, Director of Business Operations at Heinz Marketing

Does anyone have flashbacks to high school and having to stand up in front of a room of your peers and deliver a presentation? I remember those days vividly—laying awake at night worrying about delivering a flawless (or even good enough) presentation without fumbling over my words, speaking way too fast, or forgetting everything entirely.

Though it has gotten easier over time, even today, many years later, I struggle with speaking in front of a group – even small ones. And I suspect that other professionals do, too. Being in a consulting business, the pressure we put on ourselves to sound “smart” in front of clients is a lot to take on.

Because of this, when it was my turn to select our team’s learning session for the month, I chose a LinkedIn Learning course called “Communicating with Confidence”. Led by Jeff Ansell, head of Jeff Ansell & Associates, a management consulting and communications training firm—this course offered some great tips for those of us who may need a little help.

First, what are we so afraid of?

Lots, actually. Standing in front of a group, even virtually, with all eyes on you, can be nerve wracking. What if you say the wrong thing, or lose your thoughts? What if they ask a question you can’t answer, or disagree with what you’re saying? Maybe you’ve even had a bad experience presenting in the past.

Speaking can open you up to feeling vulnerable. People don’t want to seem dumb in front of others. It’s self-preservation, and when that feels at risk, fight-or-flight impulses kick in and if you’re like me, your brain starts buzzing a mile a minute and your mouth can’t keep up. This course calls it Racing Brain Syndrome, and I know it well.

But don’t let these fears and the quest for perfection stop you. There are tricks to help you feel more confident, and in turn, sound more confident to your audience.

Prepare your Content

I find that when I know the content inside and out, it’s easier to present it to a group. By being confident you know your message, you’re better prepared to field your audience’s questions. 

How do you get started? Jeff Ansell made a great point I hadn’t considered before in my career: while you are preparing your messages, identify your desired outcomes. In short, what are you trying to do with this communication? Inform your audience? Convince them to take action? Once you know your desired outcome, you can better lay out your outline.

Purpose comes first, then main ideas, details, and the introduction. Preparing your intro comes toward the end of your preparation because it should tie to your purpose and give the audience a reason to listen. 

When speaking in front of others, simple words and short sentences work best. Make your point quickly and concisely. Run-on sentences filled with large vocabulary words can leave your audience confused or uninterested.

Look and Sound the Part

Good preparation and knowing your message is important, but according to this course, 55% of the way people interpret your words and emotions is visual—how we look and carry ourselves, and 38% is vocal—the tone we use and the volume at which we speak. That leaves only 7% to the actual words you say.

So how do you look and sound confident when you might be feeling anything but? First and foremost—breathe. If you’re holding your breath, your body will appear tense, you won’t be able to concentrate, and your nervous system will kick in with those darn fight-or-flight reflexes like increased heart rate, sweat, high blood pressure, etc.

Some tips to appear and sound more confident include the following:

  • Make eye contact with someone and hold it for an entire thought before moving on to the next.
  • Use your hands—you’re more interesting to look at if you’re moving (intentionally), and hand movements are tied to voice inflection. It can also help you stay calm, and help you think.
  • If you can, stand up! Even if you’re speaking via Zoom, standing can help you expel some of that nervous energy and calm you down.
  • Use inflection and enunciate your words. You’ll speak more slowly if you focus on speaking clearly.
  • Don’t be afraid of the pauses. Don’t fill the space with ums. Pause before and after each sentence to give yourself space to breathe and remain connected to your message and your audience.

Make it a Conversation

Presenting in front of a group doesn’t have to feel different than a 1:1 conversation. Just because you’re the one speaking, doesn’t mean it should be a one-sided conversation. Deliver one thought at a time, and pay attention to your audience and how the message is perceived. This pause forces you to slow down, breathe, and connect with the people you are talking to. 

And if you need, find some friendly faces in the crowd to deliver your message to. Hold their eye contact for a full sentence, and move on to the next. This purposeful connection portrays strength and confidence as you speak.

Anxiety and Nerves

We’re human. No matter how much you prepare, anxiety and nerves can still creep in, and when they do, your audience will see. You might hold your body rigidly and stiff, you might fidget, or swallow a lot, or use “words” like um, uhh, kind of, and like.

But there are tricks to help manage them at the moment. Namely, fake it ‘til you make it. If you act confident, you’ll feel confident. It’s in your mind.

Remember the tips for looking the part – use your hands, make eye contact with a friendly face, and stand (or sit) open and relaxed.

It can also help to tell yourself that you’re not important. You ARE important, of course, but for this moment – you’re just a messenger and the content is what is important. Flipping your mindset might be just what you need to take some of that added pressure off yourself.

For more great tips and tricks for speaking with confidence, check out Jeff Ansell’s LinkedIn Learning course, “Communicating with Confidence”. What are your tips for speaking in front of a crowd?