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  • Terry L. Sumerlin

Zooming In and Making Connections

I was reading at an outside table at our local Starbucks when Rachel, one of the managers, started a casual conversation with me. “Whatcha readin'?," she asked, and we began to chat. I learned that she was in college and had ambitious plans for her future. I have no doubt that she will be successful. In addition to being bright and articulate, she’s hard working and has great people skills. But Rachel also confided to me that she knows there is one obstacle in her way on the path to her professional goals: fear of public speaking. In this, Rachel is not alone.

Recently I heard an obviously bright contestant on Jeopardy tell Alex Trebek that, when he was in grade school, he was glad that his last name began with a “Z,” so that he always got called on last to give presentations. I got the impression watching him nervously recount this memory that he probably still liked to go last in that regard. I thought to myself, “Yep. Fear of speaking plays no favorites. Man, woman, young or old, very bright or less so: people of all backgrounds and abilities often fear public speaking.”

Why is this? I wish I knew all the causes. However, I do know some of the cures. I also know that more people are presenting these days-- many of whom thought they never would-- than ever before. The pandemic has forced them to present virtually. As a result, Zoom has become a household word, and though presentations have become more prevalent, they have also become even more challenging. What was once just a matter of simply presenting organized ideas to others has now become presenting organized ideas to others using technology.

I wonder: Is it possible that, in focusing on the technology required to present virtually, we have forgotten that presenting and presenting effectively are two entirely different things? What if one botches the technology with what otherwise would have been a great presentation? Conversely, what if one has a flawless technological presentation but lacks content or communication? In either case, the presenter will fail to connect.

It seems there is a need to go back to the basics in presentation concepts, and then simply adapt them for virtual use. These are some of the same principles that I suggested to my Starbucks friend Rachel. We all need to keep these timeless tenets top of mind when presenting, even virtually.

Forget all the myths. As we were talking, Rachel immediately joked about the see-everyone-as-naked technique. Everyone’s heard of it. The speaker just imagines everyone in the audience as not wearing clothes so they seem less intimidating.

I’m reminded of a camping trip my wife and I recently took. We didn’t want to be confronted by a bear, clothed or naked! Either way would be intimidating to say the least! The problem is not the bear or the audience, but rather in how a person views the speaking experience. It is the same fear factor whether the people are onsite or on a screen, and when you view it this way, it’s about the experience—not the audience.

Speak to individuals. That said, fear of public speaking can often be traced to viewing attendees collectively. I mentioned to Rachel how that she was communicating with me just fine. I urged her to present in the say way—directly to individuals in the group. Virtually, we need to do the same. Though we should look into the camera, the camera should be positioned so that we can also see individual’s faces. We should communicate to them individually, as friends. That way, they become less intimidating as a group, and we become more effective as a presenter and connector.

They’re Pulling for You. No audience wants a presenter to fail. I asked Rachel if she had ever heard an awful presentation. Of course she had. We all have, onsite and virtually. I asked her how she felt at the time. It’s an awful feeling. It’s awkward for everyone. So, whether novice presenters or professionals, onsite or virtual, those who are listening generally want us to do well and will listen attentively, with grace.

Preparation is the Key. Even though folks may initially be on our side, they have a way of disconnecting from a presenter who is wasting their time. Always remember, there are no substitutes for relevance, confidence, expertise and passion. However, without preparation, all of these assets are wasted, as is everyone’s time. On the other hand, when you as the speaker are well organized and ready to communicate, you will connect with your audience effectively.

CONNECTOR TIP: Whether you present with Zoom or “In the Room,” the best presentation is always one that connects.

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