Fell Apart Presenting to Senior Executives? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I was asked to present to the senior leadership team and the board of my company. I was excited and nervous—and prepared, I thought—but probably not enough as it turns out.

Just as I was about to begin, I kind of lost my mind. I started to sweat uncontrollably and my heart started racing. I was afraid they would notice, so I started cracking jokes and saying inappropriate things. I stopped looking people in the eyes. I have absolutely no memory of what I said or did. I just fell apart.

I got some feedback from my boss afterward, and he made it sound like it wasn’t quite the train wreck I thought it was. He did say I seemed nervous and that I should try to avoid humor in situations like that.

It is important that I figure out what happened to me so that I can keep it from happening again. Being able to do what I am asked to do is going to be important to my career at this company. I am very competent in my job. I know they know that, but I can’t be falling apart under pressure like this!

Where do I begin in order to make sure this never happens again?

Fell Apart

Dear Fell Apart,

Let’s start with the reality here: your boss’s feedback. Yes, it’s possible that he is being overly kind or is afraid of hurting your feelings. What’s more likely is that he is telling the truth and you really weren’t as awful as you think. That’s the weird thing about performing: people only see what you actually reveal. They don’t experience your thoughts and feelings, thank God. So the reality is that you did okay. You didn’t make a laughingstock of yourself. You didn’t do permanent damage to your career. You just kind of lost it under pressure—and you’ll find some techniques you can use to keep your wits about you next time and all will be well.

I’m a big fan of a book called Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best when it Matters Most by Rick Peterson and Judd Hoekstra (full disclosure: Judd is a respected leader at my company). The book outlines all the different ways you can change your perspective so that your biological functions (aka: terrors) don’t hijack your brain. There are a bunch of practices you can try in case what I have for you here isn’t quite enough.

Here are my two tips for you for next time:

  • Over prepare
  • Stay in your body

Over prepare

Preparation is never good enough. The only way to really make sure you are going to be your absolute best is to over prepare. What does that mean? It means different things to different people, but I can share a method that has stood the test of time for my clients and me.

  1. Nail down your content and run it by someone to make sure you have the right points in the right order. Nancy Duarte has a great TED talk about how to structure engaging talks. It’s worth checking out if you aren’t fully confident in your ability to put together a compelling presentation.
  2. Decide on your stories. Once your key points are nailed down, decide what example or story you’ll use to bring each point alive and drive it home.
  3. Write out your presentation word for word. This is will help you get your language exactly right, get rid of extraneous words, etc.
  4. Read your script out loud at least 3 times. Tweak as necessary.
  5. Get your script on its feet. Turn your words into an outline and do your presentation on your feet, as if you had an audience. In front of the mirror is good, or in front of your significant other, or your cat—whatever you can do. Do this 3 times.
  6. Memorize your opener and your close. Everything else can be in your notes. The night before your presentation, run through your opener 3 times before you go to sleep.

Does this seem like too much? I’m sure it does. A dear friend and colleague once told me that she spends an hour of preparation for every minute of a presentation. That means 20 hours for a 20-minute talk. Guess what? She is always impeccable and impactful. Maybe you won’t always have to do this much preparation, especially if you develop extreme familiarity with your content. But until you get really comfortable presenting in high-stakes situations, this amount of preparation will serve you well. At the very least, it will help you get back up on the horse after your terrible experience.

Stay in your body

Before you go on, pay attention to your breathing. Inhale to a count of 3, exhale to a count of 3, or whatever technique works for you. Feel your breath going to the outermost edges of your lungs. Feel the butterflies in your gut. Feel the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. These are simple little things but so powerful, and they work. Doing them will literally keep you grounded and prevent you from succumbing to an out of body experience, which happens when we are in the state of alarm.

You will never fall apart again.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. 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!

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