Today I was told I have to give two presentations for work. One tomorrow. The other at the end of the month. Public speaking, my favorite.
Already, the cups of my bra runneth over with stress sweat.
That’s what happens to me when I get nervous: sweat ‘stache, pit stains and boob sweat. Hot mess, party of one? This girl right here.
Yet my job requires me to make presentations pretty much all the time. As a Creative Director at an advertising agency, I present ad concepts to my boss, then present the ideas that move forward to our internal account team. If they like what they see (and they better), I present the work to our clients.
Sometimes three or four times.
What the hell was I thinking when I picked this career?
That’s what my niece Emmi is asking herself right now as she considers majoring in Communications in college. Like I did when I was her age, she sees the ad industry as a fun, creative career path that would let her write every day.
But that public speaking thing …
Standing in front of people, having your work critiqued right to your face …
Maybe a nice psychology degree would be a better choice.
I actually think Emmi would make a fantastic psychologist. But I never want her to make decisions from a place of fear.
Even if I share that fear. And have an excellent reason for it.
Last year, my boss and I were in New York pitching some work to a national laundry detergent brand– they weren’t our client, so we were selling to strangers. And this was New York. The big time. We’d spent the day before practicing at the Standard Hotel (the same one where Solange Knowles and Jay-Z got into their infamous elevator fight) and I was feeling pretty good about our pitch. Petrified, as usual, but cautiously optimistic.
One of our ideas was to do laundry training films for men to help them handle the special needs of women’s laundry. No, we weren’t making men look dumb or clueless (an over-played ad trope and personal pet peeve) but instead focusing on how high maintenance women’s clothes can because of fragile fabrics like silk or complicated constructions. We had three topics we thought men would find especially interesting: Shrinkage, Textile Dysfunction and Cleanness Envy.
I was nervous when I knew my time to present was coming up but did my yoga breathing to calm my nerves. Inhale for three counts, exhale for five. Right before I stood up, I imagined myself performing Britney Spear’s “Work, Bitch” as Britney Spears to a sell-out crowd. It’s a little thing I do.
The pitch was going great. The laundry detergent people stared at me with blank expressions but the training films got the faintest smiles. Sometimes, that’s all you can hope for. Encouraged, I carried on, heading to the grand finale when disaster struck. I got my period … big time.
I’m not talking about one of those times when Aunt Flo pops in unannounced for a spot of tea. This time, she plowed her ‘72 Buick LaSabre right into my family room, knocking over lamps and scaring the cat.
Stunned, I stopped speaking midsentence and clamped my thighs together as hard as I could. Suddenly, I was petrified in the other sense of the word – frozen in place. The laundry detergent people looked at me with interest, unaware they might get see their product in action. By sheer force of will, I managed to start speaking, finish my part and hobble back to my chair. When the meeting was over I hobbled to the bathroom, dug a quarter out of my purse and purchased an ancient cardboard-applicator tampon from the machine on the wall. (I will never be intimidated by New York again. Their wall dispensers have the same ancient cardboard-applicator tampons we do down South. Big time, indeed! ) I had not soaked through my skirt, thank the baby Jesus, but my underwear would not be making the trip home with me.*
I’d love to say we won the laundry detergent business, but they “went a different direction.” Still, I had a lot to be thankful for. I was thankful I had on tights that day and didn’t have to fly home commando; thankful my male boss was none the wiser about my predicament; thankful it’s not possible to actually die of embarrassment. And thankful that I’d survive the worst. After that incident, I could roll with pretty much anything.
Since then, I’ve developed a pretty foolproof formula for public speaking.
Look the part.
Wear dark clothing if sweat or –god forbid, Aunt Flo could be a factor. Think beyond black, and consider navy, charcoal, purple or red. Dark red. Be careful of silks or fabrics that show sweat or wrinkle easily. Skip the noisy jewelry, heavy perfume or anything your tempted to fiddle with.
Know your stuff
Being thoroughly prepared and confident about your presentation cuts your nervousness in half. This is not the time to “wing it.” Remember, the key is not to recite a speech, but to relax and talk to the room as if you’re talking to one person.
Change your mindset
This is crucial! If you remember one thing about public speaking, it’s this: stop talking yourself down. Stop telling people for weeks ahead of time how nervous you are. Stop telling yourself how much you suck at making speeches. Shut down the negative self-talk the moment you hear yourself doing it. In fact, do the exact opposite. You don’t have to gush about how excited you are, but internally, at least, tell yourself you got this. You CAN do it. You’re going to kill it. Changing your tune from the negative to positive can make a HUGE difference in your confidence.
Practice out loud.
You’ve got to hear your own voice. You’ve got to read your own body language. Practice out loud in front of a mirror. My dog has heard all my pitches. And seen my performance of “Work, Bitch.” Dogs don’t judge.
Breathe. Deeply and often.
Before you take the stage, focus on your breathing. Count your breaths – inhale for three counts, exhale for five. Relax your shoulders and unclench your hands. You can feel your heart slow down.
Believe the hype.
Like I said, I like to sing in my head before I pitch. Britney works for me, but another song might work for you. Make it empowering. And while you’re singing – performing it – actually, visualize yourself making your presentation, speaking with confidence, looking relaxed and perfectly in control. You even make a joke or two. You make eye contact and smile. When you stumble a little, you correct yourself and move on. When you finish, everyone applauds and you couldn’t be prouder of yourself. Picture what success looks like and then make it happen.
UPDATE: So yesterday I gave the first of my two presentations. Yes, I was a sweaty mess, but no one ever would’ve guessed. I did a great job. Everyone said so. I may never love public speaking, it will never be “my thing.” But I refuse to let fear hold me back. Period.
From Auntie Venom’s Eighties Audio Files:
What about you? Love public speaking or hate it? How do you get ready to take the stage?
*As it turned out, the heavy, spontaneous bleeding was caused by fibroid tumors in my uterus. We’ll talk later about how you have to be your own health advocate, because nobody, I mean nobody, knows your body better than you.