Don’t Let Panic Derail Your Presentation…Or Your Career

The other day a twenty-something friend told me a sad story about a colleague of his. It was one of those public speaking stories that makes your stomach churn, especially if you’ve had a similar experience. 

Panic Picture

CC image courtesy of Nate Steiner on Flickr

His colleague was vying for a coveted spot in a specialty post-college program. As a part of the admissions process, each candidate was required to deliver a presentation to the admissions committee.  

Apparently the young man was very bright, and up until the presentation he had fared well with the committee. Unfortunately, that’s the point when “things began to go south”. 

When faced with the challenge of speaking to the group, he panicked. The words wouldn’t come out smoothly and he was sweating profusely.

He did manage to make his way through the presentation, but only time will tell what the impact will be on his candidacy for the program. 

I’ve Felt That Pain Too

When I’m watching a speaker struggle with his words (like this high profile director did), or even when I hear a story like the one I just shared, it makes me cringe. Immediately, I can see myself in the speaker’s shoes and I begin to feel their pain. I do this because I’ve been there.

At the end of my first engineering internship in the summer of 1979, I was required to present a summary of my project to the leadership team at the John Deere factory where I was working. 

I’ll never forget the fear I felt that day while delivering. Beads of sweat were streaming down my face as I walked the managers through my hand drawn overhead “foils”. I spoke only for a few minutes, but it felt like hours. 

An Important Lesson Learned

Fortunately, I survived my presentation without any long term psychological damage, but it left a lasting impression on me for sure. It also taught me an important lesson: It pays to develop effective presentation skills long before you have to speak publicly to a group.

One of my reactions to my “day of presentation pain” was to seek out advice on how I could learn to be a better speaker. I would be returning to John Deere for another intern session within 12-18 months and I knew I’d be facing the same speaking challenge at the end of that next session.

An Organization Dedicated to Teaching Public Speaking

The answer to my need turned out to be a local chapter of a worldwide organization called Toastmasters International. For me it was a godsend. 

As revealed on their website, each Toastmasters meeting is a “learn by doing” workshop where members hone their speaking skills in a low-pressure, supportive environment. That’s exactly what I found with all of the clubs that I’ve joined in different cities over the years. They were full of members who were eager to help each other get better. 

No matter whether you’re a full-fledged rookie like I was in 1979, or you’re a semi-pro, Toastmasters has a program that will fit your needs. They can help you avoid the fear, the embarrassment, and the panic that often afflicts many speakers.

My Recommendation

If you plan to check Toastmasters out, my recommendation is that you find 2-3 clubs near you. Then contact each club and arrange to attend as a guest. Afterwards, pick the one that resonated most with you, become a member, and get busy building your skills.

As a Toastmasters member, I’m confident you’ll meet some great people and you’ll quickly become a comfortable, seasoned speaker.

Question: What’s your most challenging public speaking experience from the past? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Readers: Toastmasters is an outstanding training resource, but I’m a huge fan of books for learning too. A few of my favorite books on speaking and presenting can be found in the ECL Learning Store (books are at the bottom of the page).

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