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Stage Fright

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The biggest fear in the business world is having to make a speech at a conference. This is for several good reasons. The first good reason is that you generally have absolutely nothing to say for yourself. The second equally good reason is that no-one in the audience has the slightest interest in anything you do have to say. For example, when you’re the IT Director it’s your job to make sure the IT works. If it does work they know already and if it doesn’t, they don’t want to hear your pathetic excuses.

If you’re worried about large audiences, you can take comfort from the fact that you won’t be able to see them because when you get on stage the lights will burn your retinas into the back of your head. The only area of the stage that has no light whatsoever is your notes which are in complete darkness on the lectern. It’s at about this time you realise you’ve left your reading glasses on your bedside table.  Having prepared the speech for eight weeks, you now have to improvise a forty-minute speech based on the few words of your notes you can actually see.

The small part of you that’s not gripped with fear will now be regretting not spending money on a conference production company.  Firstly, your graphics won’t work. If you’re using one of those little clicker things, you’ll accidentally push the wrong button and immediately exit the entire programme.  The audience will then be treated to ten minutes of watching the Microsoft logo circling the screen.  If someone else has the clicker, they will show the wrong graphic at the wrong time and then maybe skip over a couple just for the hell of it. If you’re lucky, the lights will fail at this time only to come back on when crawling off stage on your hands and knees.

In the hands of a decent production company the technical back up will be immaculate. This allows you to mess up the presentation all by yourself. It’s important to start well, which is why you inevitably start choking on the first couple of words. When you can’t say ‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen’ without provoking some kind of coughing spasm, it’s unlikely you’re going to dazzle and enthral for the full hour. Don’t forget you can lose your voice at any time during a presentation. If you have a very funny joke, your voice will normally say ‘adios’ just before the punchline.

To fight nerves, it’s a good idea to grip the lectern with both hands but not too tightly because they’re only temporary structures and can sometimes collapse beneath you. The really brave can leave the lectern completely and walk around the stage pretending to be relaxed and natural.  Just be aware that you have in fact walked into complete darkness, your microphone is about to give you more feedback than a year’s worth of appraisals and, at the furthest point away from your notes, you will forget your name, your job and everything you’ve ever wanted to say about anything.

Remember that the only thing keeping your audience from slipping into a permanent vegetative state is the prospect of coffee. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first speech of the day and you’ve only been talking for three minutes; no one is ever going to complain if you manage to choke out, ‘that’s it from me, let’s break for coffee.’ In fact the reverse is often true. You’ll get off the stage and the MD will probably clap you on the back and say, ‘Good speech Alan, a lot better than last year.’

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