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“Gee, it feels like my whole career is on the line right here!”

It’s the thought which often goes through the mind of someone preparing for a REALLY BIG speech. It’s not just butterflies. It somehow goes way beyond that feeling and moves right into true paralysis. So, how does someone deal with this situation? Beats me — I’ll think about it for a month and get back to you in April.

Kidding! Recently I had a great opportunity to work with a group of people who had reason to believe they were giving THE BIGGEST SPEECH OF THEIR LIVES. More than 800 people were brought in for a conference and nearly all of the presenters were not professional speakers — they were experts on their topic, but not experts on how to control an 800 person crowd! They did beautifully and here are some ideas you can use drawn directly from their experience:

Sound and Lighting are Your Friends — The room was set up perfectly for them. The sound system was top notch and atmospheric music helped set the tone throughout. (Even on a small budget you can use this trick. Have great, appropriate music playing — then bring it down as the presenter takes the stage to begin. However remember you have just a small window to grab the audience. It should run like clockwork. If the music stops and it’s 30 seconds before anyone is at the podium speaking, for example, the audience will probably just go right back to talking and ignore the speaker!) Lighting is also a great tool. In this case the stage lights were completely planned for the show — the same for the house lights. (Again, you don’t need a huge budget to get someone to turn down the room lights to get the audience to focus on the stage as the program begins.)

Use the Room for Practice — The night before the program began and every afternoon when the Ballroom cleared out the crew stayed to help the upcoming speakers prep for the next round of presentations. That meant no one went up on stage cold. Every speaker went to bed the night before their speech knowing what it felt like to be in that room, standing on the stage, delivering their speech. Much of stage fright comes from wondering what it will really be like when you are up there. The opportunity to have a full practice beforehand helps ease the nerves a great deal.

How Are You Most at Ease? — With each of the speakers I tried to sense what their personality was like, and then I suggested speaking circumstances that mirrored their style. Are you a formal person? You may be most comfortable safely tucked behind the podium. Are you casual in approach most of the time? Perhaps you can use a lapel microphone and walk around on stage while you talk. If someone is especially nervous why not trim down the speech? There’s no need to set too ambitious an agenda for them. A 20 minute speech can easily be trimmed to 5 if you really focus on the important stuff. Some people used props or slides; others mixed in a movie clip or memorable picture to help take the focus off of them for a little while and allowed them to catch their breath.

The bottom line? It just FEELS like the most important speech of your life. Rarely does one presentation an entire career make — but you always want to do your best and when a lot is on the line for you or your team, use these ideas to get headed in the right direction.