Working Smart

Stage fright can hit you even if you are not getting ready for a performance at Carnegie Hall. It can strike just as easily at the office, when you are asked to give a business report to co-workers, bosses or clients.

Even if your job does not require giving formal presentations, having a powerful speaking presence can increase your self-confidence and boost your chances for career success.

The Executive PersuaderLynda Paulson, a communication coach, author and President of Success Strategies, says good presentation skills “get people ahead. Managers whisper ‘That woman is good. She should be in management,’ and they walk away impressed with how she handles herself.”

The opposite is also true, Paulson says. “You can [be] the brightest person in the world, somebody who needs and deserves a promotion, but if you don’t communicate effectively, you might be passed over.”

Paulson, author of “The Executive Persuader,” with Tom Watson, (Lagoon, $19.95) has been a communication coach for 20 years. Among her clients are executives at AT&T, American Express and IBM.

A common problem people have in delivering a presentation or simply arguing a point with the boss is a fear of making mistakes, Paulson says. “They perceive the need to behave a certain way. [If they are delivering a presentation] they are stilted. They stand behind a rostrum holding onto the sides, and they don’t let the audience see who they really are for fear they’ll do something stupid or be embarrassed.” Getting over that fear takes practice and the realization that “little mistakes like communication I saying the wrong word are human.”

The most important part of preparing a presentation or getting ready for a meeting with higher-ups is knowing who your audience will be, she says. “Find out all about them and, if possible, ask them directly if they’ve been spoken to about your topic before and what their response was,” Paulson says.

“To have any hope of being heard above all the competing voices, your presentations have to be so personalized and so attuned to the priorities of your targeted audience that they cannot be ignored.” If other presentations are planned for the same meeting, “talk to the other speakers and look for ways to marry your material to theirs.”

Allowing time after your presentation for questions lets your audience know you are in command. Make a list of the 10 toughest questions you could be asked and predetermine how you will answer them,” Paulson advises. If a question comes up that you don’t understand, you should not hesitate to say so. “You don’t have to explain what you don’t understand, just make the statement and wait. The next move is up to the questioner.”

Trying to lighten the atmosphere of a meeting or conversation by telling a joke isn’t always a good idea, Paulson says. “Don’t tell a joke just to tell a joke; make sure it has point and is relevant to what you are speaking about.”

Paulson says an embarrassing meeting or giving a terrible presentation does not mean you should run from the room in disgrace. “Own up to it by asking to try again,” she says. “Then go back home, rehearse and come back to redeem yourself.” 

Among other ways to quell the butterflies before a formal presentation, Paulson suggests:

  • Videotape your rehearsals, if possible. This lets you see how the audience perceives your performance. If you appear stiff, it might prompt you to relax. 
  • Memorize your opening line. “The opening is always the scariest part,” Paulson says, so knowing it by heart will help. 
  • Arrive at the presentation site at least 30 minutes early to check the sound system and to review flip charts or other props you may be using. “This lets you take ownership of the space,” Paulson says, adding that you may feel more in charge if you physically rearrange chairs or other furniture in the room.

Lynda Paulson

An executive speech coach for over twenty years, Lynda Paulson with Success Strategies is renowned for teaching public speaking and executive presentation skills to professionals, management, and individuals from every walk of life.

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