Nerves are good for you – it’s caution that kills
26 January 2016
Author: Barry Brophy is a mechanical engineer who provides training in how to make technical presentations and teaches two masters’ courses on this topic in UCD
Most people are scared of making presentations and most presentations are awful. These two statements seem to sit well together but they hide a deeper truth. Overcoming nerves is not the route to presenting well. How nervous you feel has almost no bearing on your ability to communicate.
What kills most presentations is not nerves but caution. What is the difference? Well, nerves are what you feel when you stand up to speak, have obvious symptoms – sweaty palms, shallow breath, racing heart – and generally do more good than harm. They give you energy and prompt you to ask important questions. They make you feel poorly but they don’t make you present poorly. By and large.
Caution leads people to omit much of the good stuff
Caution, on the other hand, strikes in advance of a presentation, has no obvious symptoms and does untold damage. Caution, during the preparation phase, leads people to omit much of the good stuff – analogies, stories, demonstrations, examples and images – in favour of bland truths and endless bullet points. Caution chokes creativity. It is characterised by an inner voice that says, ‘Don’t do anything unusual; people won’t like it’.
An example of this is the way speakers shy away from telling stories in presentations despite telling them endlessly in conversations. We carried out a study at University College Dublin where small groups were video-taped preparing for, and then giving, presentations, and we counted the number of stories told in each setting.
The difference was stark. People used stories to explain ideas to each other in small group situations but then did not use the same stories to explain the same ideas in the final presentations. I have seen this over and over again in real-life situations.
What really makes you valuable when you are communicating as an engineer is your stories because stories represent experience. Stories show that you are not just voicing ideas, but that you have lived those ideas.
Paolo Carbone is a chartered engineer who manages large projects on the Luas works. In one of his presentations he made the point that the Luas, unlike most construction projects, is never more than a metre from a stakeholder, be that a car, a pedestrian, a house or a shop. He illustrated this with a picture – of a guy sitting dangerously on top of one of the overhead power lines – and told the story that went with this provocative image.
In communication, real scenarios like Paolo’s trump theory every time. People will take more interest in your theories if they see how these theories apply to the real world. Stories allow you to make these connections.
Stories work on three levels: they are engaging, informative and memorable. They get the audience’s attention at the start, help explain your key points during the talk, and stay in people’s memories long afterwards. But it should be pointed out that when I talk about stories, I am not talking about hilarious yarns or tall tales. A story is simply an instance where you draw from experience – ‘We came across this problem before…’; ‘When I was working in…’; ‘This reminds me of something I heard…’ – to illustrate your key points.
The reluctance to tell stories is one behaviour driven by caution but there are several more. People speak in the concrete in conversations but in the abstract – definitions, equations, jargon – in presentations. People talk unprompted in conversations but write everything down on their slides in presentations. People interact with each other in conversations but speak solo, in overlong, breathless monologues, in presentations.
Most presentations are too presenter-focused
Indeed, these caution-driven behaviours are symptomatic of a deeper problem, namely that most presentations are too presenter-focused. When asked to give a short talk, people will often say things like, ‘It’s difficult to cram everything into the time,’ but this is totally wrong-headed.
In a conversation, if somebody asked you what you did for a living, you would give them a two-second answer: ‘I’m an engineer.’; ‘I’m a writer.’; ‘I’m a professional golfer.’. If they want more, you’ll give them more but you have no difficulty keeping it as brief as it needs to be. Why? Because you focus on the one thing the listener wants rather than on the many things that you know.
Which leads us back to nerves and why they appear to be the obstacle that they are not. Presenters are so obsessed with how they feel, they lose sight of the more important point: how does the audience feel? Although you may be a jangling mess on the inside, most nerves are invisible from without.
In any case, the audience don’t really care if you didn’t sleep well last night or couldn’t finish your breakfast this morning. Forget about your woes and give them what they want: a useful talk with lots of stories, examples, analogies, images and demonstrations. Worry about them, not you.
Engineers are often guilty of hiding behind their material, of letting the graphs and the flow-charts and the bullet-points speak for themselves. But you are the communicator, you are the voice. In that regard, nerves can actually be an advantage – they give you energy and make you look as if you care. Caution, on the other hand, should be shunned. If you are too cautious when choosing what material to present, you will end up communicating nothing.
- He is author of The Natural Presenter, 2007, which was published in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
- He has provided training for many large engineering clients: BP, Jacobs, ESBI, Faber Maunsell, Engineers Ireland, DePuy, Microsoft, etc.
- Although based in the Mechanical Engineering school in UCD, the courses he teaches are open to students from all disciplines – see short videos.
- He has spoken on this topic recently on Ireland’s leading business radio show, ‘Down to Business’ – listen to podcast.