How Monica Lewinsky conquered her public-speaking demons

How to overcome fear of presenting and get your own standing ovationIn March 2015, Monica Lewinsky walked into the world-famous spotlight of the TED stage in Vancouver, Canada, to deliver a presentation called ‘The price of shame’. She was, of course, already world famous herself. Everyone ‘knew’ her story – her affair with former US President Bill Clinton, which had hit the headlines some 17 years earlier. In her own words, she was the Creature from the Media Lagoon.

Her face was projected above her on two huge screens, revealing even the slightest expression of nerves. The tiniest glisten of moisture in her eyes would be highlighted a hundredfold in the glare of the stage lights. Somehow, just ‘imagining the audience in their underwear’ wasn’t going to cut it here.

Talking about her presenting experience in an interview for The TED Guide to Public Speaking, she told TED Curator Chris Anderson:

‘Nervous is too mild a word to describe how I felt. More like . . . gutted with trepidation. Bolts of fear. Electric anxiety. If we could have harnessed the power of my nerves that morning, I think the energy crisis would have been solved.’

Thankfully, most of us haven’t had to deal with ridicule on the scale Lewinsky has – but the all-consuming fear of presenting that she felt is something many of us can relate to.

Presentations are among the most important things we do in our careers – whether we’re a newcomer proving our worth to our colleagues for the first time, or a senior adviser influencing policy decisions that could affect the lives of millions.

Lewinsky used just about every trick in the book to calm her nerves before her talk. And they worked – her talk was widely acclaimed and quickly reached over a million views.

So how did she overcome her fear of presenting? And how can you use the same techniques in your own business presentations? We talked to our expert presentation-skills trainer, David White, to learn more.

1. Don’t rely on adrenaline

‘You can’t rely on adrenaline helping you throughout your presentation. All it does is give you an instant rush,’ says David.

Too many people hope that adrenaline alone will see them through their talks – but it isn’t enough. ‘It fades after four or five minutes.’

Few people could have been more adrenalised than Lewinsky in advance of her talk. But she also used the techniques below – as the impressive final result showed.

2. Write a mantra

Lewinsky had two mantras that David likes: ‘One was “I’VE GOT THIS”, and the other was “THIS MATTERS”. She wrote the latter on the top of the first page of her talk.’

‘I like these because sometimes we forget that we can do what we’re going to do, especially if we’ve done it before.’

So when writing your next presentation, try using your own mantra. Make it simple and straightforward. You may think you’re just ‘faking’ confidence – but keep in mind that many of the people you meet who you feel are ‘naturally’ confident are doing just the same thing.

3. Use your fear as a motivation

Public speaking regularly rates highly in surveys of people’s fears – even when pitched against competition like the fear of heights, or even death.

But it’s the social costs that worry us the most – we want to be liked, included, respected and taken seriously by others. Being ostracised from a group of any kind – be it your peers while at school or work colleagues later in life – is a scary prospect.

The key to dealing with this understandable fear is to use the fear as motivation. ‘If you’re scared, make it force you to practise more. Do more rehearsal, more preparation.’

Lewinsky went as far as giving her talk in advance to small audiences for feedback. When the negative feedback she was fearing just didn’t come, she knew she was in a much better place to present.

4. Let your body help you

Your state of mind is very attuned to the state of your body. You can test this for yourself: sit upright with good posture in your chair, moving your chair closer to your desk if necessary.

(Seriously, try it now!)

Do you notice how much more attentive it makes you feel? It’s much harder to get the same feeling if you’re slouched over your desk, even if everything else about the situation is the same.

You can use this effect of the body on the mind to your advantage. Taking deep breaths is a classic technique in the same vein for calming nerves. And if you find your nerves are hitting you well in advance of your talk, try pausing now and then to take some deep breaths. It will help to prepare you.

David uses a smartwatch app which taps your wrist at random points in the day, tapping out a slow rhythm for you to breathe in time with. (There are lots of apps which do this, including Breathe for Apple Watch, and Paced Breathing for Android.)

As well as doing breathing exercises, Lewinsky went for a walk to clear some of her adrenaline. You may find that a stroll, or something even more vigorous like push-ups or star jumps, does the job. As with our tips to stop procrastinating and start writing, nothing is ‘strange’ if it works for you.

5. Don’t be afraid of appearing vulnerable or nervous

When you have a fear of presenting, calming your nerves is important. But you don’t need to eradicate them or be afraid of showing them.

A show of nerves demonstrates that you feel what you’re doing matters. This might be counterintuitive – but David asks us to consider the opposite case: ‘Imagine your typical oily presenter of a game show. He’s competent, but he’s not someone you really warm to.’

Compare that with Patti Smith, who recently stumbled through a Bob Dylan song after she had been asked to perform to mark the handing over of his Nobel Prize in Literature. ‘She said, “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous”. She got a full round of applause when she stuttered, and some people in the audience cried at her performance. People were on her side.’

Lewinsky’s nervousness and vulnerability served the same purpose – at one point in her talk, she had to completely stop and take a moment. It reinforced the fact that the subject really did matter to her. If you can’t show you care about your subject, why should anyone else?

6. Preparation, preparation, preparation

Preparing your talk beforehand is the single biggest thing you can do to calm your nerves. David is emphatic about this: ‘Nothing beats knowing you’ve properly prepared and rehearsed.’

If you don’t have an audience to practise to, try rehearsing in front of the mirror. Get comfortable with your presentation. If possible, take the chance – as Lewinsky did – to perform your talk in front of an audience in advance.

7. Remember who is on your side

Of course, speaking to an audience can seem like an intimidating prospect, particularly if it’s a large group.

But knowing there is someone in the audience who is on your side, or sympathetic to your message, can be enormously important. David explains: ‘You know there’s someone who is going to say, “I think this person has got a really good point there.”‘

And even if you’ve got nobody familiar in the crowd, someone will still be on your side. As Lewinsky put it, when you address an audience, ‘It means someone, somewhere, decided you had something of import to impart to others.’

You’ve got this

Lewinksy’s talk focused on the culture of humiliation – an emotion we have all felt intensely at some point, and which we want to avoid at all costs.

But its impact showed the flip side of human nature – her talk got a standing ovation. At TED, as in business, audiences can be sceptical, hard to convince, or even hostile to a certain message, but audiences usually don’t want to see a presenter completely fail.

So when you next need to give a presentation, remember that you don’t need to change your personality overnight to do a great job. Just prepare wisely and thoroughly – and then you’ll know, as Lewinsky did, that you really have ‘got this’.

And for in-house teams who want to learn to present with confidence and impact, see our presentation-skills training course especially designed to empower even the most reluctant of presenters to stand up and deliver.

Image credit: Monica Lewinsky receiving a standing ovation at TED, and looking right at Al Gore sitting next to me by Steve Jurvetson used under CC BY 2.0/cropped from original

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