How your starting thought can make or break your presentation

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

When I’m leading a workshop in confident public speaking, attendees are quick to tell me how nervous they feel when speaking in public (and they may even feel that they will never get over it). It’s like some big hurdle to cross. And by telling me how nervous they feel, they have somehow unloaded a burden.

Then, I ask attendees to really think about their starting thought…

Imagine this scenario – you’ve been asked to give a presentation at work and you’ve had a growing anxiety about it for some weeks now. You slave over your presentation (especially the night before), and finally it’s a moment of truth: you stand nervously to speak and…

"What’s your starting thought?"

It’s a simple enough question, but most people cannot answer it immediately. We know what the feeling is (fear, anxiety, nervousness, dread), we know it has a very strong grip on us, but we hesitate to name the starting thought that caused that emotion.

Your starting thought is almost as unique as your fingerprint. It is a very specific thought that gets triggered when you’re under this kind of pressure. For one person it is “I know I’m going to forget my words!” For another person it’s “Oh no, everyone’s looking at me!” For another person it might be that no-one is looking at them – which would signal to them that no-one is listening.

At the Not-for-Profit Conference last week, I delivered 2 workshops called "Present Like a Pro." I love the workshop format because you get a real chance to engage with people 1-on-1 and really get to grips with what their starting thought might be.

For people working in the not-for-profit sector, the impact of speaking can generate funds and change lives in really tangible ways – so there is a lot at stake. The more important the presentation is to us, the more nervous we may feel.

Whatever your reason for speaking, your starting thought has its own unique flavour that is personal to you – but you’ll find that all starting thoughts can be grouped into similar themes:

  • You’re worried about yourself ("I might forget," or "I might look foolish").

  • You’re worried about the audience (e.g., "They might not listen," or "They might ask me a question I can’t answer").

What’s interesting is that a lot of this is beyond your control, and, more importantly, it hasn’t even happened yet! In a very real sense, your fears about what “might” happen cause that very thing to occur. Call it the law of attraction – but whatever you want to call it, it is vital that you take command of your starting thought.

Right now, your starting thought gets triggered unconsciously. You’re so unaware of it that you don’t even know exactly what it is. Take a moment to acknowledge what it is for you, and decide instead to replace it with something a little more positive. Make sure that it is something that is true for you. Even if your starting thought is simply “Well, at least it’ll all be over 10 minutes from now,” that simple thought is likely to induce a state of relief or calm instead of anxiety or panic.

Over to you: What’s your starting thought?

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