We came together with Uber this October to introduce Girlboss x Uber Pitch, a program awarding more than $200,000 in prize money to three rising-star entrepreneurs. Ahead, hear from a leadership and speaker coach on the tools you need to ace your next presentation.
Imagine this: You step onto the stage greeted by thunderous applause. Smiling, you calmly stroll to the center and patiently wait while basking in the limelight. You pause for dramatic effect, before powerfully delivering your perfect speech—without notes. It’s laced with humor, rhetorical flourishes, and oracular pronouncements. It leads to a great unveil that’s met with gasps and cheers. You’re not sweating a drop even though you’re under stage lights and dressed warmly in jeans and a black turtleneck…oh wait, that’s not you.
Actually, you’re about to speak to a small group of friendly colleagues at work and you appear to be falling apart.
Sound more familiar? You’re not alone. Recall this classic joke about people’s number one fear being public speaking while number two is death: “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
“Nerves are just part of being alive,” says Kristi Hedges, a leadership coach and columnist for Harvard Business Review and Forbes.
“Working with executives for the past 10 years at all kinds of levels and different situations, I’ve learned that nerves are part of the human condition. It doesn’t really matter what level you are, people still get nervous.”
So how do corporate heavyweights manage their nerves and where do they get their confidence? And more importantly, how can you?
You can be nervous and still nail it
The first thing to know is that nerves are “a physiological reaction to a stressor,” Hedges says. “That’s all that’s happening in our bodies. Our stress hormones are elevated and that causes it to manifest in some way.” Classic symptoms are heart pounding, blushing, a shaky voice, or dry mouth.
“Know that you can’t fight your nerves. They’ll win,” says Hedges. “We aren’t in a fight to get our nerves to stop. You can’t will it to go away.
“We’re better off accepting it, taking a deep breath, trying to oxygenate our brain a little bit, and realizing that it’s not a quid pro quo. We can feel nervous, our heart can pound, and we can still perform. It doesn’t mean that if we feel it we’re going to mess up. That’s the jump we make: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m nervous, so I’m not going to do a good job.’ You can be nervous and do an amazing job. They’re not connected.”
The second piece to be aware of is the transparency illusion. That’s “the belief that people can see what’s inside of our heads,” says Hedges. “It’s an illusion because they can’t. People don’t know how nervous you actually are.”
So be nervous. But own it anyway. Here’s how.
Prepare and practice, practice, practice
Adrienne McLean, a speaking coach and instructor, says the most effective solutions to building confidence are preparation and practice. “The more prepared and practiced you are, the better and more confident you’ll be.”
“Know your audience and know the topic inside-out,” she advises. “Practice, practice, and do more practice. Practice by yourself, in front of the mirror, in front of friends and family.”
“Practice and repetition builds the confidence.”
If you’ve got a case of nerves, McLean recommends writing the presentation out in full, and being completely familiar with the content.
If you need to memorize your presentation by heart, try the ‘Power of Three’ framework.
“Three points can take up a five-minute presentation or a one-hour presentation or workshop,” McLean says. “The audience can only take in so much, so by working with three main points and then building on these with examples, exercises, etc., it’s a great structure to work with.”
Finally, get out there and practice your general skills. “The way people improve and develop their confidence in speaking in front of groups is to speak in front of groups! It sounds obvious, but to develop public speaking skills you need to go out and speak in front of people. Take every opportunity to speak. It is a matter of getting used to [it].”
Build confidence from the inside-out
There’s one caveat to McLean’s advice: “Your mindset when speaking in front of people is crucial.”
“If you say to yourself ‘I’m no good at speaking in front of people’, ‘I don’t like public speaking’, ‘I’m so nervous’ whatever you say—then stop it! Your mindset is very important.”
Hedges has examined this idea in depth in her book, The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others, in which she presents a model for developing executive presence. Rather than referring to corporate showmanship, presence means the ability to connect with and inspire the people around you. “Presence is the great equalizer,” Hedges writes.
“When I work with folks, what I tell them is that 80 percent of it is a mental game,” Hedges told Girlboss. “I talk about presence from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in, because most of the time, when we think about how we present ourselves on any other platform, we look and see what do other people try to do, and then we emulate them. It’s almost like trying on a suit that doesn’t fit us quite right. But we keep on trying to wear the suit and hope that it will eventually fit.”
A lot of presentation advice and communication skills training focuses on “developing presence from outside-in,” Hedges says. Think powersuits, deepening our voices, using commanding gestures, and eye contact.
“But the problem is that we can see you in there,” Hedges says. “As the participant or the audience, we can see when something doesn’t fit quite right. And so that’s when you get feedback that someone’s not authentic or they don’t seem comfortable in their own skin.”
The inside-out approach works in reverse. It starts with a strong sense—an intention—of how you want to come across.
For people who have never presented before and want to embody their intention, Hedges recommends taking the time to think about the values that you want to represent.
“Think about this as your values worn on the outside,” she says. “What are you about? When you show up and people know you, what do you want to convey? That’s always individual but it’s really important to know for yourself.”
On the big day, you can use “situational intention,” which means simply taking a few minutes before you walk into any sort of presentation or exchange to “get in your mind a feeling that you want to convey. Determine how you want to show up, before you do it.”
Women who are working in male-dominated fields or environments stand to particularly benefit.
“[When we’re the minority], we feel that we have to adopt behaviors that aren’t authentic to us in order to show up in a credible way. And so I just caution women there, not to lose the core piece, the values piece of who they are because that also shows,” Hedges says.
“If we want to show confidence, we don’t have to show confidence like an alpha male, we can show confidence like a strong female. So, really remain aware that even though we may not be setting the cultural terms there’s still space in that for us to show up in a way that’s most powerful for us.”
The Confidence Club at the Girlboss Rally is full of empowering, IRL workshops designed to help you find your voice and tackle any negative self-talk. To save your spot, register now at girlbossrally.com.