Using Emotional Intelligence in Presentations

Emotional IntelligenceYou may be surprised to learn that 60% of people rate fear of public presentations even above the fear of death. This comes from an ancient fear of ostracism from the tribe, abandonment and vulnerability, which remains part of our inheritance in the emotional brain. The emotional (subconscious) part of our brain evolved for life in the wild, whereas our intellectual (conscious) brain evolved much later. Fear produces stress and it triggers the fight or flight response; danger requires a physical response, not an intellectual one. That response is only turned off when we take physical action – fighting or fleeing – or if we become skilled at reducing stress by becoming calm. Excess stress inhibits access to our intellectual and rational brain.

So how do we use these emotional and intellectual resources to best effect for presentations in public, whether to a few colleagues or to a wider audience? Essentially, we need to prepare well on both a subconscious and conscious level.

Conscious Preparation

A good presentation requires 90% of the work in advance preparation and 10% for its actual delivery. For preparation, make sure you know what you want to get across, know your material and know your audience, using their jargon. Practice delivery out loud – this will prime you for spontaneity and ease of delivery. Don’t read from a prepared script nor learn by heart, but you can write down points on cards/notes/PowerPoint to prompt you.

Speak with enthusiasm and commitment, with a good variety of modulation in the voice and a relaxed posture that is professional, confident and authoritative. As 93% of what we communicate is nonverbal, this is really important. Keep good eye contact with all parts of the audience – or appear to be doing so. Generally speakers need to be up to three times as animated as normal during presentations. Start and finish on time.    

If you are using PowerPoint, prepare good slides with short points; using pictures and graphics is also a good idea. It is best to have a good balance between the factual aspects of what you need to communicate (which appeals to the rational part of people’s brains) and more creative illustrations or language – things such as case studies, humour (but only if you do humour!) or sensory descriptions of what you are talking about (which appeal to the metaphorical, creative part of people’s brains, through which we achieve most of our learning).

Go for a short walk or take some exercise before giving the presentation, as this will reduce stress levels and boost natural feel-good chemicals. Avoid having too much coffee or other stimulants.

Subconscious Preparation

Access a state of confidence before starting. Just remembering a time when you felt confident and focusing on that feeling for a while will help to mobilise your resources. You can also use breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing (with the out breath longer than the in breath) for up to 10 minutes beforehand – this will stimulate the physical relaxation response, which in turn relaxes the mind by reducing stress levels. It’s OK to keep some measure of anxiety, as this will help you to perform well; it’s the excess anxiety we need to get under control.

It can be very helpful to practice mental rehearsal when deeply relaxed in the days before the presentation itself. Vividly run through how you will be, look and feel during the presentation – really prime the mind for success. Worrying is a negative mental rehearsal that primes the mind for failure, so we need to ensure that we create a clear template for success in the mind. Positive mental rehearsal creates a positive, successful experience and an expectation of things going well. Always remember that people don’t want to see failure – they’re on your side!

We function at our best when we are relaxed and calm and have full access to all our intellectual and creative resources. I read recently that Gandhi, after qualifying as a barrister as a young man, was too shy and anxious to utter a word in his first court case. He got up to cross-examine the claimant’s witnesses and, facing the court, came near to fainting. Given the pre-eminent political and spiritual leader he later became, we can all draw inspiration from him.