Just before the holidays, a dear friend and colleague of mine emailed me to get some advice on how to maintain emotional control during a presentation. He was closing his business of twenty years and was being given a farewell party by his biggest client. Knowing that he would be called to the podium, he was concerned that, in the emotion of the moment, he would blubber like a fool.
Maintaining composure and keeping uncontrolled emotion out of our presentations is what most business presenters know as the standard. Yet what to do when you are speaking about a situation or event where you're feeling emotionally vulnerable?
Here's the advice I gave my friend:
- Keep the audience and their needs foremost in your mind. They may appreciate seeing you display genuine emotion, given the situation, but they will be mighty uncomfortable if you start sobbing uncontrollably. The more you can remember to force yourself to be "out there with the audience" the less time you'll have available to be in your own head, worrying about choking up. As Dr. Nick Morgan says in his brilliant post about this topic, it's up to the presenter to read the audience and see how much emotional display will be appropriate.
- Don't wing it. Prepare your remarks ahead of time. As with any presentation, in the moment you may be overtaken by nerves, emotion or stage fright. The better prepared you are, the more likely you'll still be able to open your mouth and have something intelligible come out [...even though you might not remember what you said].
- Make your remarks short and sweet. Hone them until they say exactly what you want them to in the least amount of words. If you are struggling with your emotions, this means you’ll only be "up front" for a brief time.
- Although you may want to include comments and stories that are poignant, look for the least mushy way of expressing your gratitude, joy, regret, sympathy or whatever. If you stay away from the really sentimental content, it will be easier to keep control.
- Practice, practice, practice. This is the step everyone agrees with and no one does. But it is the one thing that can make the most difference. When you’re up in front of the audience, you don’t want to worry about forgetting what you wanted to say in addition to managing your emotions. If you practice enough so that you cement your remarks, then you can devote all your energy to managing the emotional response.
- Visualize how it will go – you delivering the remarks, accepting peoples’ accolades and clapping and still maintaining composure. Visualize the struggle to maintain composure and then being successful at it. Do this visualization multiple times so that when you get to the real thing, it will be like…been there, done that.
- Aim for keeping composure, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Give yourself permission to have a bit of a catch in your voice or get a bit misty-eyed [the operative word being 'bit']. If your subconscious knows that you have this latitude, it will be easier to maintain control.
- Don’t forget to breathe. That sounds pretty basic, but when we’re nervous, we tend to breathe very shallowly and this prevents sufficient oxygen from getting to the brain which in turn produces physical symptoms like shaky hands, quavering voice and tears. Do some deep breathing throughout the day of the presentation, including just before you speak.
For these techniques to really work -- and they will -- you have to be intentional about them and incorporate them into your preparation earlier than the morning of the event.
And so how did my friend do?
He came through with flying colors. In his own words, he had a "little quiver when thanking my staff but a quick recovery." And with the success of the presentation behind him, he was then free to enjoy the bottle of 2002 Dom Perignon he was given.
Flickr/Nino llorando C.C. 2.0