06/26/2014 08:03 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2014

Presentation Rules to Break: Picture the Audience in Their Underwear

Thinking about boxers or briefs will not help.

In my last post, Presentation Rules to Break: Practice in Front of a Mirror, I highlighted the need to watch your audience when you're giving a presentation. Here's where we find the line that we don't want to jump -- there's no need to picture the audience in their underwear.

How many sitcoms have spoofed this rule? The goofy main character has to speak to an audience, so some wise mentor suggests, in order to control her nerves, that she should picture the audience in their underwear. The theory is that this visualization lowers the intimidation factor of the scary audience, tickles the presenter, and makes her relax.


I've tried it, and I've even had test subjects try it. It's distracting, makes you go blank, and leaches energy away from your passion and funnels it to a stupid technique. And there's always someone in the first row whom I really don't want to visualize in underwear. Ick.

I'm so fortunate to have trained over 1,000 people in presentation skills and executive presence. What I've learned is that many people are following old, moldy rules that make them stiff and uncomfortable. It's been my mission to help people find the courage to break those outdated rules and be their authentic selves. Modern audiences would much rather see a real, perhaps slightly quirky person over a slick, perfect shell.

The Presentation Rulebook is just full of dumb tips like picturing the audience in their underwear. Sure, you might be scared of the audience, but let them remain fully clothed in your mind for a while. You are there for your audience, so respect them! Visuals that make you giggly or embarrassed separate you from them. And connecting to your audience, in a way that allows you to be yourself, is a key step to winning them over.

Here's a really big deal secret: the audience wants you to do well. Audiences are not by nature mean and intimidating. No one shows up hoping to see a presentation tank: "Gee, I hope this guy is really boring and bad. What a great use of my time."

What's more, audience members naturally empathize. If you're visibly nervous, if your technology blows up, or you if can't answer a tough question, the people around you will wish they could help. Audiences are your friends, and they're just dying for you to be brilliant. They're actually pulling for you. Think of them as a quiet cheering section next time you stand up.

The cheering section idea extends to friends and strangers. It's counterintuitive, but you will always be more nervous presenting to 10 friends than to 100 strangers. You'd think that a group of friends would put you at ease, but a familiar audience can actually make you as comfortable as a snowman in a tanning bed. You expect more of yourself in front of friends. Friends know us well, and we figure they'll be harsh critics who notice every weakness. Don't stress out; the same empathy applies here. Your colleagues want you to do well just as much as strangers do. They would love to be pleasantly surprised or maybe even blown away by how awesome you are.

Hope this helped you -- if you liked this information, find over a dozen other rules to break in my book: "Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over." Now get out there, break a few rules and have fun!

Excerpted with permission from "Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over" copyright 2014 Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Karen Hough is the CEO of ImprovEdge, an Amazon #1 bestselling author and contributor to the Huffington Post. Her second book published by Berrett-Koehler, "Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over" is available. She is the recipient of the Stevie International Silver Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year and the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. She is a Yale graduate and international speaker: .