You might be surprised at how many executives say they lack confidence in front of audiences and want to gain the skill.

Here’s a nerve-wracking experience that I keep in mind as I coach high-powered leaders who want to improve their presentation skills. It starts in my rear view mirror, back when I was sixteen years old. My high school business teacher entered me in the Future Business Leaders of America speech contest. First of all, you should know that I had never given a speech before. Secondly, I was raised in a humble family in a tiny Indiana farm town, so I had no clue what topic to choose for a business speech. I certainly didn’t have any compelling business nuggets that would rock Wall Street to its core.

As the deadline to select my topic approached, and with no sudden emergence of business acuity, I chose a simple, safe speech title: “Confidence is the Key.” Yes, I know – my topic choice was part lame, part prophetic.

When the day of the speech arrived, I stood before the audience in my self-styled seersucker suit with a homemade poster as my visual. The poster was canary yellow, featuring a giant black key that I’d cut out of construction paper and carefully glued next to my emphatic magic marker title. You get the level of sophistication. Unlike a James Bond Martini, I was shaken and stirred as I dug deep and delivered my heart-felt message. I’ll get to the outcome of the contest in a moment – it’s pertinent, I promise.

Luckily, my grasp of presentation skills has evolved a bit since high school, so here are a few secrets to help you become a remarkably confident communicator, despite your nerves:

  • Forget the underwear. The solution to overcoming nerves is not to picture the audience in their underwear – that’s a tired old tale. Instead, the smart solution is to shift your focus to serving the audience. Make this your new presentation mantra: the purpose of my presentation is the people. The people. It’s not about creating killer slides. Not about seeing how much information you can cram in. Not about whether your mouth is dry or you’re sweating through your jacket. Your mission is to create a positive experience that will influence people to act. Shift your focus to serving the audience and an amazing transformation will happen.
  • Confidence is situational. If you think self-confidence and self-esteem are interchangeable words, hit the reset button. Confidence is the expectation of a positive outcome in a specific situation. It’s very different from self-esteem and your underlying sense of worth. The key to a confident presentation is to prepare for the specific situation. Smart preparation will help you wrestle your nerves to the ground. Expect a positive outcome in this one specific situation, prepare for it with a sound strategy, and you’ll achieve it. Every time.
  • Lacking confidence is selfish. You read that right. It sounds harsh, so let me explain. If you lack confidence in a presentation it means that you’re focusing your attention squarely on yourself. Everyone gets butterflies before presenting. I know I still do. But butterflies are actually a good sign because it means that you’re taking the presentation seriously. You have a choice: you can let the butterflies undermine the situation by focusing on your own feelings — or you can use them as an edge to redirect your focus and take your audience to a higher level.
  • Forget perfection – think excellence. Please understand that this is a huge statement coming from a recovering perfectionist. When you stop worrying about being flawless, people will start relating to you. Aim for excellence instead of absolute perfection. Truth be told, people see right through the illusion of perfection anyway and value genuine, relatable human beings, warts and all. Spewing endless, perfect factoids with a flawless style leaves people cold and that’s a confidence killer.
  • Don’t slip into “presentation mode.” Do you morph into a faux-heavyweight version of yourself when you present? Stay centered. You’re good enough. If there’s a glitch, stay light and handle it graciously or humorously. Turn mistakes into advantages. You’ll light a fire by aiming for people’s hearts, not their heads. Take the pressure off of yourself and see how much better people respond to you. Isn’t that the point of business communication – getting a positive response?

Since you’ve stuck around this long, I’ll share how my high school business speech contest ended. The sixteen year old mini-me surprised myself by winning the state and regional contests with my “Confidence is the Key” presentation. I then packed up my poster board and boarded my first-ever airplane to the national finals where I became the top loser in America. In other words, I was first runner-up nationwide. The judges chose an experienced eighteen year with big city business ideas as the top Future Business Leaders of America speech winner.

Rightfully so. The winning speech was content-rich and well-delivered. I learned that content and delivery are equally important to your success and I’m passionate about sharing the secrets to reaching this presentation nirvana with executives today.

Clearly, confidence is a key to business success. But I don’t recommend a goofy poster board.