Presentation Preparation: How to Get in the Zone

In late January, 2020 — with the COVID pandemic still just a whisper on the horizon — we conducted an open-enrolment Leadership Through Storytelling training workshop in Vancouver. I had worked hard on my presentation preparation for this event, but was still somewhat anxious about it because of how many were attending. On the morning of the event, my partner and I drove over to the venue early to make sure everything was set-up as planned well before the participants started arriving.

We had just gotten in the elevator to exit the parking garage when I noticed an elderly couple walking briskly towards us. So, like any good citizen would (hopefully) do, I held the door for them. After they both scurried in and thanked me, the gentleman looked over, smiled and remarked, “Well, you look like you’re ready to conquer the world.”

After he said this in his beautiful British accent, I recognized him as Christopher Gaze, the artistic director of Vancouver’s annual Shakespeare festival and, himself, an accomplished actor. Given his pedigree, I took his observation as a nice compliment and replied, “Well yes…yes, I am. I’m running a big workshop today and am cautiously optimistic I’ll do well for the people attending.” As the elevator doors opened, he patted me reassuringly on the shoulder and said, “I am absolutely certain you will.” Then he and his wife disappeared into the rainy dawn.

That morning, I was ready to conquer the world. And it warmed my heart to know that a skilled performer like Mr. Gaze noticed that in me. My job as a storytelling coach, presentation skills trainer, keynote speaker, and consulting facilitator regularly requires me to be “on stage”. And every time I have to do that, I get nervous: every time. That said, I have learned, through years of practice, how to control my nerves versus them controlling me. I have also learned how to get physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared for a presentation before I step into it.

Outlined below are some things you can do — from a few days before your talk, to right up to it — to get fully “in the zone” with your presentation preparation before you perform. All of these guidelines apply for any presentation given in any situation. However, given the virtual world we are currently living in, I’ve made special notes around what should be done specifically when presenting online.

Three Days Before – Stop continuously refining your content and start rehearsing your delivery.

At a certain point in the development of a presentation, continual refinements starts to generate diminishing returns, adding less value to your performance and its impact on your audience. In contrast, taking the time you’d spend on small content adjustments and reallocating it towards practicing can pay you back big-time.

Two to three days before your presentation, start rehearsing your delivery. And when I say rehearsing, I mean out loud, by yourself in your office, your car, or a meeting room, but also in front of willing colleagues, spouses, kids or pets. Presentations are never given in a vacuum. So, the more you can rehearse in front of an audience (even your own smart phone set to record), the better.

Practice a few times, then walk away and do something else. This will give your brain a needed break. And when you come back to practicing, you will very often realize you know your material better than you think.

Day Before – Familiarize yourself with the venue or online platform

When we get back to presenting in-person, make sure you visit the space you’ll be speaking in. If that’s not possible, ask someone to send you photos of it. This will allow you to get a sense of your venue, as well as any challenges it might impose so you can adjust accordingly.

Once, I had to conduct a workshop in the hull of a decommissioned battleship. It was a very cool venue, but a challenging space for a tall person like me, with ceiling beams that hit right in the middle of my forehead. But by visiting that venue the day before, I knew what I was up against (literally and figuratively) and adjusted accordingly.

And when you visit the presentation venue, hook up your laptop, fire-up the AV and make sure all the technical stuff works. Nothing takes you “out of the zone” more quickly than having to deal with AV issues right before your presentation is scheduled to start.

ONLINE PRESENTATION PREPARATION TIP – A technology dry-run is especially important when giving online presentations. Make sure you understand the platform being used and how to drive it when the wheel is handed over to you. Zoom, Webex, Skype, BlueJeans, etc. all have their own unique protocols and tools, and what works on one might not work on the other.

Night Before: Presentation Preparation – Get a good night’s sleep

This is such a cliché, but a good night’s sleep can do wonders for presentation performance. The evening before your presentation, rehearse it once or twice after dinner, but that’s it. Then watch TV or read a book to take your mind off of your presentation and put it somewhere else. And consider getting into bed earlier than usual, knowing it might take a little longer for you to fall asleep because of nervous energy.

Morning Before – Exercise, meditate, or do both

Yes, rehearse a few times more after you wake up, but also take time to exercise or mediate. Both have been proven effective at dissipating nervous energy by triggering the parasympathetic, “rest and recover” nervous system and lessening the sympathetic, “fight or flight” one. Taking time to exercise or meditate will clear your mind, calm your nerves, and have a greater positive effect on your performance than rehearsing your presentation endlessly.

Two Hours Before – Do Some Power Posing

A woman power posingIn 2015, Dr. Amy Cuddy gave one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. In it, she shares her research, which found that “our non-verba

l cues don’t just govern how others feel about us, they can also govern how we feel about ourselves.” More specifically, her research showed that our stress hormones (cortisol) go down and our dominance and strength hormones (testosterone) go up when we pose ourselves in a powerful position: e.g.,  fists on our hips like Wonder Woman, arms stretched up over our heads in joy, hands clasped confidently behind our heads.

Dr. Cuddy recommends (I kid you not) that before a big presentation or talk, strike and hold some power poses for a few minutes. It’ll feel silly. It’ll look silly. But, as she says, “Our minds change our bodies, but our bodies can also change our minds…which can change our behaviours, which can change our outcomes.”


One Hour Before: Presentation Preparation – Stop rehearsing and have faith

As much as I advocate rehearsing, too much of it right before your performance can do more harm than good. New pitfalls have a way of appearing the closer you get to your scheduled start time, exposed more by nervous energy than lack of preparation. In turn, those new “Where the Hell did these come from?” challenges make you more nervous, which makes you practice harder to try to correct them, which re-exposes the challenge, until the next thing you know you’re in a full-blown panic attack (he says from experience).

So, an hour before your scheduled start time, stop practicing. Trust, that at this stage in the game, you’re well-prepared. You know the material; you’ve practiced it; and while it will undoubtedly not go exactly as planned, it will still go well. Have faith in that.

30 Minutes Before – Warm yourself up

All presentations are verbal and therefore rely on your lips, your mouth and your vocal chords to deliver them. So take a few minutes to warm up these muscles and get them ready for action. There are lots of different vocal exercises you can find online if you search on YouTube.

15 Minutes Before – Meet and greet people

It’s unnerving to be in a room full of strangers. So make them less strange by meeting them. Walk around the room, introduce yourself, tell them how glad you are to have them here. Doing so will not only help you take your mind of your presentation for a bit, but it will also make sure there are some friendly faces in the audience.

ONLINE PRESENTATION PREPARATION TIP – You can meet and greet people online as well as you do in-person. Log into your platform at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time to admit people (e.g., from the waiting room), but also to say “hello” and make polite conversation with them. It’s a little more awkward than doing so in-person, but it can be equally as effective.

Two Minutes Before – Take some deep breaths

It’s remarkable how calming and restorative a deep, cleansing breath can be. So before I ever walk to the front of the room or out on a stage, I spend the last couple of minutes taking deep, cleansing breaths, in through my nose and out through my mouth. Doing so floods my body with oxygen and lessens the physical symptoms of my nervousness.

Right Before – Enter with confidence

As Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage,” and every stage deserves a strong entrance onto it. Before you start your presentation, enter the presentation space with assurance and conviction. Walk confidently to the front of the room or center of the stage, stand with your feet facing forward and your weight distributed equally between them, make eye contact with a few people in the audience, have a moment of stillness (just a moment) and then start.

ONLINE PRESENTATION PREPARATION TIP – Go through the same exercise, but instead of walking to the front of the room and making eye contact with people, take a breath, look directly at the camera at the top of your screen, take a moment, and then begin with the confidence and conviction you will undoubtedly have.

You’ve got this!

Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 12 years, BB&Co has been providing Effective Presentation Skills and Leadership Through Storytelling training to companies and organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Prudential, Dell and others. BB&Co’s training helps managers, sales people, finance directors, engineers and others understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and presentations and, with that, their ability to persuade, engage and inspire others.

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