I have always found the typical creative career path a bit odd. In the first part of your career, you’re expected to keep your head down and get stuck into grids and layers. Then, a shift happens, and you’re expected to stand-up, lead, inspire, win that pitch and headline that conference. But what if you don’t feel ready yet?
As a senior creative at Anyways (which, along with It’s Nice That, is part of the HudsonBec Group), presenting has become an integral part of my role. Most of my day revolves around communication, checking in, discussing ideas, and sharing work with clients. I always knew I would work in a visual communication role, but now my job requires me to successfully communicate verbally too.
I’ve learned that presenting and public speaking is just an unavoidable part of the creative industry. But, if just the mention of speaking in public curdles a fear in the base of your belly, do not panic, there are several ways to overcome this. Over the years I’ve collected some tips I find useful in each stage of presenting, from prep to pre-presentation nerves and what to do if it all just goes a bit wrong.
Although this advice is for everyone, as it’s International Women’s Day, these tips are collectively more aimed at women. The truth is, unfortunately, that in the creative industries us women are the minority, especially in creative leadership roles. For this reason, public speaking could be considered a little more daunting, but I hope at least some of this advice is useful. Or, at the very least, will let you know you’re not alone.
Prepare, prepare, and prepare a bit more
It sounds obvious, but a way to control what’s coming, and what may feel uncontrollable in a presentation, is to prepare as much as possible. Make sure you know your presentation inside out, so if you’re in the room and you suddenly can’t see the presenter notes, it’s no big deal.
Advisable ways to prepare include doing a test run with your team or a friend, or you could also try writing down the key points on a separate piece of paper (step away from the keyboard!), in order to test how much you know. Sometimes I find it’s best to try reading through the document just before you go to bed. Research shows the brain retains information which has been learned just before sleep a whole lot better.
…But not too much!
Yes, I know, I’m annoying saying this after the above, but sometimes too much preparation comes across as scripted. Ensure you know your talk and you are confident, but let your natural excitement and energy come through. It’s different for everyone and the more you do, the more you’ll start to know what’s right for you. You’ll begin to notice when enough is enough and when to close the laptop, look out of the window of the train on the way there and feel the excitement of what’s to come.
Allocate time to rest
Unless you are an adrenaline fiend, try to make sure you’re well rested the night before you have to present. I’d recommend planning in time for this well deserved rest too but in our industry it can be hard, especially with all-nighters and weekenders being a part of the process (note: it shouldn’t have to be). But a lack of sleep will make your brain foggy, and your adrenaline will have to work hard to get through that fog, rather than impacting your talk. All that coffee won’t help with the nerves either.
If it’s an all-nighter vs enough mental capacity and energy to present, I know which one I prefer.
Find your way to fight the fear!
As humans, we are hardwired to protect ourselves and our reputations. When this is under threat, our fight or flight instinct kicks in. This makes our blood pressure increase, encourages adrenaline to shoot up, and can even make your digestive system shut down. This is why we feel (very) physical feelings before a big presentation, otherwise known as nerves.
When this is happening, remind yourself that nerves are good. It is your body preparing you for what you have to do. Here are three tips I use for managing nerves in the moment before a meeting or presentation:
Deep Breathing: Breath in and count to eight, breath out, hold, and count to eight. This will bring your pulse and heart rate down, and make you feel more calm and in control.
Say YES: An actor once told me this tip and I use it every time I have to present. In those minutes before you’re about to speak fill your mind with positivity. Instead of letting your mind flood with worry, internally repeat the word YES in your mind.
Perform a physical act: Take a look at this very helpful improv warm-up, including a simple counting game that uses the whole body. Reserve a moment to do this before you present to shake out the nerves and get your adrenaline aligned to the right place.
Think of a presentation as a conversation
You may be the one at the front of the room controlling the slides, but when presenting try to think of it as a conversation, not just a one-way street. This can be achieved through eye contact and listening.
Our eyes were made to connect, they reveal things we don’t even realise. Audiences sense this, and switch off if they don’t feel connected to you while you’re presenting. Take time to look around the room and take note to involve all members of the team.
Our eyes can naturally tend to connect to more senior, more confident — or sometimes as I have seen, just more male — members of the team. But remember that everyone is there for a reason, so take the time to connect with each one individually. As a female, and a previous junior person in meetings, who repeatedly had eye contact overlooked, it really is noticed, and it’s not a great feeling.
If you find yourself being overlooked in a situation where people may assume the men are the authority figures, remind yourself you are there for a reason. Take that reminder, channel it into confidence, and authority will come through in your body language. And, if those people are not giving you eye contact – remember it’s their fault and not yours.
Quite often, when people get nervous, they speed up which makes the brain reach for filler words. Most will know the most famous killer word, “umm”, but the one that really gets overused when presenting is “kind of”. If I had one wish it would be to eliminate “kind of” from the earth. It’s more contagious than a cold.
Filler words are bad because they distract from the listener’s ability to understand your message. They may give your brain space to think about what to say next, but where an “umm” or a “kind of” may distract, a pause will add.
While you may be tempted to fill the silence, next time just try a break in your sentence instead. Take a breath and think about what you want to say next. Then, when you start talking, you will be more composed and in control. Pauses and breaths can also help keep your pulse down, which is great when the adrenaline monster is rising within.
Say yes to the (public ad)dress
It’s often said that men are more likely to take opportunities, such as promotions or job applications, before they might be deemed “ready”. Women, on the other hand, have a tendency to wait until they feel they meet 100 per cent of the qualifications. But in my experience, please don’t let excuses and fear dictate your opportunities.
If the chance to present arises – just take it! Don’t think you can’t talk for five, ten, 20, even 60 minutes? You can. I promise.
Also remember, longer presentations can actually be far better. You can really get into the detail of a project, take your time and let your knowledge of that work guide how you present.
Now for the most cliché but most important bit… just be you!
When presenting, tune in to your natural energy. If you are high energy, embrace that and let the enthusiasm come through. If you are a strong and silent type stand still, be present and clear, let your audience lean in to find out more.
Presenting is not acting. People want you to be your authentic self and can tell when you’re not being it. Don’t feel like you have to be a certain role in the way you present. You’ve got this far being you, it doesn’t have to change when the pressure is on.
If things go wrong on the day…
Don’t worry. Don’t get flustered. Don’t try to fill the time. Stay calm and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Only start when everything is ready, and you are ready too.
In this moment you are the expert. This is your project, your ideas, your creative, you know the work inside and out. Take a minute to zoom out – it’s just a presentation. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be a TED talk, or recieve a standing ovation at the end.
You pursued a life in the creative industries for a reason. Bring that passion through and focus on sharing the creative projects you’ve worked so hard on. Of course channel the person that brought about this project or this presentation, but everything that’s come before that too.
Illustrations by Sara Andreasson.