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Presentation anxiety is one of the major causes of the incredible fail rate of so many business presentations. You may consider yourself a failure if:

Your audience didn’t get it.

You were a nervous wreck.

They were bored.

They forgot most of what you said by the time they got back to their desk.

When that happens, the Mindful Presenter at least has the courage to carry out a full post mortem. In other words, they don’t just put it down to experience. Instead they work out exactly what went wrong and why.

That’s all well and good although the ‘horse has well and truly bolted.’ The experienced Mindful Presenter doesn’t leave this to chance; they don’t wait for the post mortem.

Instead, they carry out a pre-mortem long before they stand to speak. A pre-mortem in any presentation begins at the moment we are called on to present rather than when it’s all over.

The pre-mortem works on the basis that the presentation has already failed so we find out what went wrong before we even sit down to craft it. That in itself sounds more anxiety provoking than just living in hope that all will go well. The reality is it’s a key part of the solution to reducing how nervous we actually feel on the run up to our presentation and the moment we stand to deliver.

I unintentionally upset one of our delegates in a recent presentation skills workshop. On asking everyone to write down and share what they perceived to be their bad habits, this lady who was particularly anxious said; ‘I don’t prepare.’

I responded by expressing my view that what she described wasn’t a bad habit. At this point she smiled, although it was short lived when I told her I regarded that mind-set as more of a bad attitude than a bad habit.

Failing to prepare is simply waiting for the post-mortem. My point was that if she was happy to wait for the post mortem then that must relate to attitude rather than habit.

The pre-mortem allows us to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong. It’s a means of substantially managing our level of anxiety through anticipating and preparing for everything that could happen.

It works under the premise that you prepare for the worst and expect the best.

The Pre-mortem

It starts with a few very important questions:

What’s so important that I can’t just send these people an email?

Who are they really?

How much do they know?

What do they need?

Why should they care about what I have to say?

What difference will what I have to say make to their personal or professional lives?

What’s my message?

You can be certain that if you can’t answer each of these questions with absolute clarity your presentation will fail and you will be asking them during the post-mortem.

Rather than waiting to ask yourself, “What happened?” a pre-mortem enables you to anticipate all of the issues that can cause you to be so anxious and uncertain. That awareness allows us to formulate a plan to navigate around them.

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So what did happen?

  1. You weren’t clear on your message

Every presenter believes they have a clear and compelling message to share, yet many audiences have to work really hard to understand exactly what that message is. When you ask the confident presenter what their message is you will often hear a prolonged explanation ending in you wishing you had never asked. We live in a world of social media where the whole world is tweeting. For others to understand your 140 characters you have to think long and hard about the point you are trying to make and why people should care.

The pre-mortem presentation begins with a message that is concise, compelling and transparent. It has to be mindfully crafted to ensure a level of clarity, purpose and impact that your audience will understand immediately.

  1. You didn’t have a strategy

Far too many professionals focus on content, content, content when crafting a presentation. In other words, in an attempt to show their audience how much they know, how clever they are and how hard they work they ‘give them everything they’ve got’. If you don’t have a clear strategy it’s inevitable that you will feel unduly anxious because you are making your presentation about you rather than your audience. Once the mindful presenter is clear on their message they then turn their undivided attention to its purpose.

Our purpose revolves around two crucial elements.

  • What do we want our audience to do with the knowledge, information, data or insights we are presenting?
  • To substantially increase the likelihood of them doing what we want them to do, what is it we want them to feel?

You can have the most clear, concise and compelling message on the planet but if you are not clear on what you want your audience to feel and ultimately do with it you will be anxious.

  1. You opened your laptop first

Whilst we have the greatest respect and admiration for technology we are very clear that when it comes to presenting, the last thing you should open is your laptop. Doing so serves little purpose other than to stifle free thinking and creativity. Inevitably it results in us producing a presentation that everyone has seen before.

Instead of pulling out the all familiar templates, take a moment to think about your message and purpose and how both could be presented in a way that stands out from the crowd. My personal favourite is using post it notes as a starting point to brainstorm and support everything I can think of to serve my purpose and animate my message.

  1. You made it about you.

No one cares who you are, how many offices you have or how many insurance policies you sell. They don’t care about your title, how many letters you have after your name and they certainly don’t care whether you are nervous.

All they care about is whether you respect and value their time by telling them something you couldn’t have just sent in an email or ‘Googled’ for themselves.

Don’t tell them how nervous you are or how little time you have had to prepare. Tell them only what matters to them.

  1. You didn’t practice effectively

Far too many professionals believe that practicing their presentation means that they simply have to read it to themselves a few times. Practicing takes time, mindfulness and effort. The mindful presenter will practice their presentation in 3 ways:

  • They know their key message, purpose and content well. That doesn’t mean that they memorise everything they have to say they just know with clarity, conviction and passion what their point is.
  • They practice the way they share and express their content verbally. They consider and practice every aspect of the way they express themselves in terms of energy, volume, pitch, pace, intonation, contrast and pauses.
  • They practice their non-verbal expression. In other words, how do they stand, look, make eye contact, move and even smile.
  1. You didn’t ask ‘so what?’

Everything you say, everything you show and everything you do should be preceded by you asking yourself the all-important question ‘so what?’

In other words, imagine that for everything you say, everything you show and everything you do your audience asks you ‘so what, why should I care’.

If you don’t have a good answer to all of these questions you should be nervous.

  1. You didn’t know the answer

One of the major issues we are asked to help people with in our presentation skills workshops is answering questions they don’t know the answer to whilst retaining their credibility.

There is no silver bullet or magic wand to deal with this issue effectively although the pre-mortem technique is to create your own ‘War room’.

That means anticipating in advance every conceivable question you may be asked. It means finding the appropriate knowledge, authority or expertise to help you to identify those ‘killer’ questions.

  1. You didn’t take care of yourself

You’ve spent an inordinate amount of time crafting, preparing and practicing your presentation. Now it’s time to look after number 1.

Before you stand to speak you owe it to yourself to take good care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.

  • Exercise
  • Breathe
  • Meditate
  • Visualise

Your job is to do whatever it takes for you personally to look after yourself and put yourself in the peak position required to enable you to speak with impact.

The following TED Talk by Daniel Levitin explains the concept of pre-mortem thinking further.


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