The best way to combat nerves about a public speaking engagement is to prepare well. By structuring your presentation according to best practices, avoiding common pitfalls, and addressing your discomfort speaking in front of people, you can deliver an incisive presentation with ease.
While this list of steps might seem like overkill, it's a good idea to go through them all if you're a relatively inexperienced public speaker. In time, and with practice, much of this will come naturally to you and preparing for presentations will be less effort.
1. Create a thesis.
If someone were to ask you, "What's this presentation about?" you should be able to summarize your answer in a concise sentence or two. If you stumble through your explanation or ramble, you're thinking too broadly. Just like a well-written essay or article, a well-executed presentation should have a targeted aim and focus.
Not sure if your presentation is too broad? Write out the thesis. If you are hesitant or can't summarize the subject of your presentation, rethink the breadth. Consider the top takeaways you want your audience to have at the end of the presentation and focus on those things first.
2. Structure the presentation with the audience's knowledge level in mind.
When you are an expert on a topic, you can be so close to it that you lose touch with what is common knowledge and what isn't. Everyone has sat through presentations where the lecturer needlessly defines basic terms, but listening to someone speak at a high level, when you have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, is just as bad.
Think about who your audience is and what they are likely to know when you create your presentation. If you're talking to highly skilled professionals in a very niche field, you probably don't need to define basic industry terms.
If, though, you're teaching something new to a group of people with little to no prior knowledge of the subject, explain unique terms and acronyms (even if they're old hat to you), and pace out the information in digestible chunks.
3. Don't overload your presentation with examples or facts.
When structuring your presentation, make sure the pacing and order of facts and examples make sense. Inexperienced presenters often overload their audiences with facts or overexplain things by offering too many examples. Using examples to explain complicated concepts or processes is a good strategy, but make sure you're not giving examples just to give examples.
When reviewing the examples included, ask yourself, "What will the audience learn from this example that they couldn't learn from the other examples in this set?"
The same strategy works for facts and figures. While there are presentations that are fact and figure dense out of necessity, offering too many pieces of ancillary evidence or information confuses listeners. Make sure your presentation stays focused on your thesis and avoid repetition.
4. Rehearse with the technology.
Even professional performers rehearse. You should rehearse early and often, and use any A/V tools you'll be using during your rehearsals. If you're nervous about public speaking, enlist help from your family and friends and use them as guinea pigs.
While it's not always possible, if you can get into the room or theater where you'll be presenting ahead of time, do so. The more familiar you are with the space and the tech setup, the better prepared you will feel on the big day.
5. Arrive early.
If you are prone to lateness, overcompensate on the day of your presentation. Don't aim to arrive on time, be early. If you're presenting in an auditorium you may have to do sound checks, and if you're in a conference room or a classroom, you'll likely need to set up your own tech.
Even if you're not using an A/V equipment, you should arrive early, especially if you've never been to the presentation location before. Nothing frazzles your nerves more than rushing around like crazy just before speaking in front of a bunch of people.
6. Add a CTA, if applicable.
If the aim of your presentation is to spur your audience to action, whether that be buying a product, collaborating on a project, or participating in something specific, include a call-to-action (CTA).
CTAs are used extensively in advertising; they typically come at the very end of an ad or piece of promotional copy, and are directive and specific in nature. Something like "Get involved!" is not a good CTA because it's not specific. A better CTA would be "Get involved by attending our event on May 3rd – you can buy tickets online at this website."
7. Be realistic about public speaking nerves.
Public speaking is a widely held fear and most people know that. This information should help you feel more secure about your skills going into the presentation. The audience wants you to do well, but they also understand that you aren't a professional performer.
If something glitches, you stumble over a few lines of information, or you stop to consult your notes, it is highly unlikely that people will react negatively. Most likely, the people you're presenting to will sit patiently and wait for you to regain your train of thought. This is especially true if you are new to giving presentations and it's not a primary part of your job.
People know public speaking is challenging, and usually they're kind, understanding, and supportive.