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How to Prepare for a Presentation

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I recently taught a journalism workshop for secondary school (high school) students in London. I couldn't have been more excited about this, as I'd long wanted to add teaching writing to my freelance repertoire.

But I was also very nervous, which was odd, because teaching isn't new to me. Back in the Pleistocene era, I used to be a college professor.

And yet it felt new. That was partly because I was teaching a different population (high school students as opposed to university students), and it was partly because I would be teaching a very different subject matter (journalism rather than political science).

Plus, the last time I taught a class I was pregnant, so my memories of teaching are clouded by feelings of nausea and exhaustion. ("And that's different from normal teaching how, exactly?" quipped a male colleague at the time.)

All of this is to say that during the week leading up to the class, I was even more hypo-manic and rhesus-monkey-like than my baseline self, which is (let's be honest) not exactly relaxed.

So I tried to think of ways to reduce my anxiety about giving a presentation, short of that old chestnut about calming yourself down by imagining everyone in the audience in their underwear.

Here are five ways to get ready for a presentation:

1) Know your audience. This is key. If you have a good sense of who you're talking to -- how many people, how old they are and where their interests, expertise and needs lie -- that will go a long way towards diminishing your stress. (Ironically, my talk at the secondary school was on audience in journalistic writing. Ahem.)

2) Seek out advice. Especially if you're addressing a group you've never spoken to before, be sure to seek out advice from those who have. In my case, I feel very comfortable giving a lecture to university students. But that's quite different from doing a hands-on writing lesson with secondary school students. So I had coffee with several friends who had worked with this age group to generate some ideas for teaching techniques.

3) Imagine the worst thing that could happen to you. I once fainted when teaching. No kidding. So I kind of already knew the very worst possible thing that could happen if I flubbed my teaching stint at the secondary school. And that was a huge relief, because once you've actually lived out your worst-case scenario, everything else looks better by comparison.

4) Less is more. If you're like me, you try to imagine all the 65,000 different topics you could possibly include in your talk/paper/blog post/[fill in the blank] before whittling them down to the most important ones. That's fine if it's part of your creative process. But just remember that when you're actually up there, there will always be less time than you think there is. People ask questions, technical glitches arise, you spend extra time on a difficult topic, etc., etc. Foresee that this will happen and reduce your content accordingly. You can always expand to fill time. Or do a soft shoe routine.

5) Have fun. The day before going to the secondary school, I got an email from a teaching friend reminding me to have fun. It's easy to get caught up in writing the best presentation possible, especially if you're, um, a bit of a perfectionist. But the main thing you want to convey in a talk is that you're enjoying yourself. Because that, above all else, is what inspires people to listen.

Best of luck.

As the Spartans would say, come back with your shield...or on it.

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