Terrified about Doing a Presentation at Work? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I supervise five people in a global logistics company. I am three years out of school with an accounting degree, and I really like the job.

Here’s my problem: My boss just came to me and asked if I can do a presentation to the senior leadership at their offsite retreat this summer. I have some time to prepare, but I am stricken with terror just thinking about this.

I am quiet person and have never been much of a performer. I don’t want to decline— I don’t think that would be a good idea for my career here. But I honestly am afraid that I will faint or throw up.

How can I step up to this opportunity when just thinking about it puts me in such a state? I don’t even know where to start. Help please.


Dear Terrified,

You are in good company, my friend. Speaking in front of a group is up there with death and big furry bugs on most people’s list of fears. I will tell you what you need to do to rise to this occasion; then you can decide whether or not to decline.

I agree with you that declining would send the wrong message. It would also deprive you of an amazing opportunity to develop yourself. I suspect, because you have been tapped for leadership at such a young age, that you have a lot going for you—so developing this skill really matters.

I know you want be perfect out of the gate, but no one will expect perfection. Your first move is to find someone to coach you. Trying to go it alone is simply a mistake, so please hear me on this. Your coach will help you shape your material to draw out the key points and help you get rid of the fluff. Your coach will make you practice. Your coach will make you eliminate all of the evil filler words or phrases that signal a rookie.

Now let’s talk about fear. Many people think if they wait long enough, the fear will go away and then they’ll be able to do the things that scare them. They will wait a long time—because in my experience, the fear never goes away. People who do things in spite of the fear simply keep finding new ways to scare themselves. They keep upping the ante. Others think that if they find the right formula, they can move through the fear. This is also not a good strategy, because—let me reiterate—the fear never goes away. The only thing to do with fear is get used to it. Befriend it. Welcome fear as the messenger who tells you that you are really trying. Let fear walk with you on your path. Hold its hand, put it in your pocket, let it sit on your shoulder—whatever image works for you.

You can also try one of my favorites—the worst case scenario: walk through, preferably out loud, the worst possible thing that could happen around your presentation.

  • I could throw up on the CEO
  • I could pass out
  • I could wet my pants
  • I could forget my whole presentation
  • I could forget my name and how to speak altogether and they will call the psych EMT’s and cart me away.

You get the picture. The nutty part is, I know people who have experienced each of these things—and worse. And guess what? Nobody actually ever died or got fired.

With your fear properly managed and your coach to help you, make an outline of the key points you need to cover and then write out your initial speech. As you shape your material, keep in mind this question: What do you want your audience to know, think, feel and do as a result of your presentation?

Now you will want to refine and practice your presentation. When I’ve worked with clients on their first-time presentations, here is the protocol for practicing that I have seen work for most people.

  1. Read your speech word for word and make corrections until it is right.
  2. Reduce your speech to key points with bullets, except for your opening and your close.
  3. Create your slide presentation if you are using slides. Use slides only to provide visual support and inspiration, not to express reams of data. If you need to share reams of data, get help to turn the data into something visually compelling and informative. Use handouts for details.
  4. Practice until all you need is your key points on one piece of paper. Practice in front of someone—your coach, if possible, but anyone will do. Make sure a total stranger understands and can keep up with what you are saying.
  5. Practice your speech three times the night before, just before bed.
  6. Right before your presentation, run through your opening three times.

This sounds like an awful lot of work because it is. But this is what it takes for you to feel over-prepared and to deliver really well in spite of your terror. And if you do even half of this, you will be a rock star.

Finally, when it’s time to stand and deliver, remember to:

  • Breathe. When you feel yourself panicking, breathe. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Three times. It always helps and never hurts. If you lose your place, breathe. The next point will come to you on the breath. If it doesn’t come in on the first breath, it will come in on the second. I promise.
  • Feel your feet. I got this tip from an autobiography by Lawrence Olivier, who was the Brad Pitt of British theatre in the mid twentieth century. At the peak of his fame, he was struck with paralyzing stage fright. The thing that finally allowed him to function was to feel the soles of his feet connected to the ground. I have used this myself for decades, and everyone who has ever tried it swears by it.
  • Control your eyes. Look at one person, then another, then another. Make a point to one person, then move to someone else for the next point. Don’t look down.
  • Speak up. Talk a little louder than feels natural. Don’t try to hide or pretend you aren’t there.
  • Find your light. Figure out where the light is going to be best and stand in it. Your instinct will be to find the shadow, so work against that.
  • Speak to your supporters. Your tendency will be to find the people who look like they are bored or annoyed and try to change their minds. Don’t do it. Find the people who are engaged, smiling, and with you. Speak to them and let your appreciation show—and pretend the other people are not there.

So are you going to do it? I hope so. Let me know how it goes.

Love, Madeleine

Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation. Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

6 thoughts on “Terrified about Doing a Presentation at Work? Ask Madeleine

  1. I agree with all suggestions and have one more. Don’t open your presentation with negative statements: “I’m new at this (or I’m nervous, or this is my first time presenting, etc.), so please have patience (or forgive my nervousness, or bear with me….etc.).” You risk undermining the audience’s confidence in you and what you are about to share. Most people expect a speaker to be somewhat nervous initially – you don’t need to confirm that for them. The focus should be on engaging your audience, not about confessing your discomfort. Breathe, smile, and start!

  2. Toastmasters is invaluable. Every professional should work on completing the “Competent Communicator” path at a local club or online. Regular practice in front of experienced public speakers will build strong speaking skills.

  3. Pingback: Nervous and Anxious about Work Presentations? Ask Madeleine | Blanchard LeaderChat

  4. Pingback: Nervous and Anxious about Work Presentations? Ask Madeleine | HCL

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