January 22, 2013 3:14 pm

We have an aquarium in our house.  The other day one of the fish developed an illness and died.

A bit alarmed by this, my 12 year-old son searched on You Tube to find a cure, just in case the illness struck again. Typing in ‘fish’ and ‘death’, he unearthed a slightly disturbing video showing what happens when a goldfish is plopped in a tank of piranhas.  A ghoulish interest in the outcome gripped us and we watched the clip.

You can guess the rest, but what was interesting was the behaviour of both parties in the tank.  The piranhas didn’t attack immediately.  They all lined up facing the goldfish and stared at it.  For a split second it looked as if the goldfish was presenting to the piranhas!  The goldfish, of course, froze, realising its fate…and it was all over. Ugh!
A cartoon of a goldfish presenting to some Piranhas

The insight for me was how a presentation situation in business often mirrors an attack situation in nature.  Exactly the same behaviour that we saw with the piranhas can be exhibited by our evolutionary cousins, primates.  In troops of monkeys, when a group stares at an individual it can be the precursor to an attack, either to force it out of the group or even to kill it.

So moving on to humans, think of all those spaghetti westerns when Clint Eastwood strides into a saloon as a stranger. The music stops and everyone stares.  Is someone going to pull a gun?  We are primed, by our reactions, to expect this.

Now think about your workplace.  Imagine if someone embezzled money from the company, resulting in you and your colleagues losing your jobs.  If they came in to clear their desk what would you do?  Stare of course!

This brings us to presentations.  When we’re presenting, we are deliberately setting up a ‘staring’ scenario.  We may well orientate the chairs into an arc which amplifies the focus.  Even if we’re presenting to a friendly audience, no wonder we feel nervous and hide behind the lectern!

What is being triggered in all of us is our primeval ‘fight or flight’ reaction.  When we feel threatened, a hit of serotonin and adrenalin is released into our system to help us fight or run.  Useful if you’re under attack on the African savannah two hundred thousand years ago, not useful in a presentation situation.

So, what can we do?

1. Prepare

There’s no easy way to say this: you need to know your stuff.  Knowing your stuff is the be-all and end-all of presentation confidence. If you don’t, and you suffer from nerves, you’re going to have a rough ride.  It’s often hard to find the time to prepare, so decide whether or not this presentation matters.  If it does, try to carve out the time to become really familiar with your content. It’s much easier if you’ve written it yourself, but even if you haven’t, spend time working through your own version of the content, re-writing or changing the slide layout if that’s what it takes.

2.  Rehearse

In some companies, there’s a view that only sissies rehearse their presentations out loud.  We’ve heard stories of CEOs rehearsing in secret because they think it makes them look weak.  Rehearsing your presentation in the open is a great example to set your employees and colleagues – it means they’re more likely to follow suit and do a better job. Steve Jobs famously rehearsed his product launch presentations many times.  It takes several run-throughs to realise that you need a longer introduction, or a better bridge between two slides.  It’s when you have the content down that your natural style can begin to come through, and you’ll present with more charisma.

3. Do a recce

We humans are not much different from primates, or the family dog for that matter.  We feel more comfortable when we’re on home turf.  But if we’re not on home turf, we can still make the space feel more like our own.

If you’re presenting in a new place and you suffer from nerves, do everything you can to get into that room before the presentation.  Visit it as early as you can.  If you’re pitching at a new client’s and you can only get in an hour before, it’s still better than nothing.  But if you’re presenting at a conference, try to get access a week or in advance.  Walk, and if you can get away with it, run around the room.   Move the chairs, move the tables, lay your stuff out all over the tables and the floor, open the windows, close some blinds.   Make it your space.  Then, from different positions all over the room, imagine you’re up there presenting.  Watch your imaginary presentation going well, watch your team and your audience congratulating you at the end.  This simple visualisation technique helps to train your primeval brain to accept this ‘threatening’ situation when it actually arrives.


There are many more confidence-building techniques, but these are a great place to start.

Overcoming presentation nerves is a very big part of what we do at Make Yourself.  In our presentation skills training course ‘Presenting with Confidence’ we encourage people to face their fears and to experience on the course just what a great presenter they can be.  We pride ourselves on helping people make significant transitions on the day and this can really build an individual’s confidence.

But this new-found confidence is fragile, so we also equip people to ‘protect’ it so they can deliver the same presentation confidently in the workplace.  The good news is that what we do works, immediately, and our clients can testify to that.