Recently, I attended TEDxSF, a communal, multidisciplinary event (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) whose goal is to bring thinkers together to share ideas they’re passionate about. While there, I had the pleasure of watching nearly a dozen different speakers talk to a packed auditorium. Each person had his or her own unique tactic for engaging the audience and holding us captive. A few had rehearsed presentations backed by visual aids, while others seemed to be just making it up as they went, using a lot of self-deprecating humor along the way. Some were better than others, but on the whole, everyone was confident and quite effective in grabbing the audience’s attention.
One speaker, however—a man who was reciting some poetry that he had written himself—was visibly petrified. At first, he tried to read from memory, but he repeatedly failed to remember the words. Again and again, he would apologize, then start over. When he finally broke down and pulled his notes from his pocket, his hands were shaking wildly and his voice stuttered as he struggled every second to just get through to the end of his presentation. It was painful to see him suffer. I just wanted to yell to him, “It’s going to be okay. You’re doing fine.” When he finished, a palpable sense of calm washed over the whole auditorium. Everyone was relieved it was over—for him.
Recognize a Common Fear
Before you embark upon on a self-taught path to becoming a more able presenter, it may be helpful to know that fear of public speaking is not unordinary. According to a 2001 Gallup Poll, 40 percent of Americans admit to being afraid to speak in front of an audience; in fact, this fear ranks second only to fear of snakes. Gavin de Becker, a renowned expert on the prediction and management of violence, believes that fear of public speaking is really about being afraid of losing one’s identity. If we fail to successfully deliver a speech at a wedding or a presentation in a boardroom, we’re at risk of humiliating ourselves and losing our identity. This fear can be debilitating.
Take It from the Experts
Enter Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization with a stated mission of “helping people become more competent and comfortable in front of an audience.” At Toastmasters events, members meet for a few hours and hone their communication skills by role-playing and giving either planned or impromptu speeches in front of other members. On November 5, 2007, NPR reported on filmmaker Keva Rosenfeld’s experience when he joined his local Toastmasters club to overcome his fear of public speaking. Rosenfeld came to the conclusion that public-speaking ability is not something we are born with, but rather something everyone can learn by following the Toastmasters’ proven techniques:
- Know your material. Pick a topic you’re interested in. Know more about it than you include in your speech. Use humor, personal stories, and conversational language—that way, you won’t easily forget what to say.
- Practice, practice, practice! Rehearse out loud with all the equipment you plan on using. Revise as necessary. Work to control filler words; practice, pause, and breathe. Practice with a timer and allow time for the unexpected.
- Know the audience. Greet some of the audience members as they arrive. It’s easier to speak to a group of friends than it is to speak to strangers.
- Know the room. Arrive early, walk around the speaking area, and practice using the microphone and any visual aids.
- Relax. Begin by addressing the audience. It buys you time and calms your nerves. Pause, smile, and count to three before saying anything. (One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. Pause. Begin.) Transform nervous energy into enthusiasm.
- Visualize yourself giving your speech. Imagine yourself speaking, your voice loud, clear, and confident. Visualize the audience clapping—it will boost your confidence.
- Realize that people want you to succeed. Audiences want you to be interesting, stimulating, informative, and entertaining. They’re rooting for you.
- Don’t apologize for any nervousness or problem—the audience probably never noticed it.
- Concentrate on the message, not the medium. Focus your attention away from your own anxieties and concentrate on your message and your audience.
- Gain experience. Mainly, your speech should represent you—as an authority and as a person. Experience builds confidence, which is the key to effective speaking. A Toastmasters club can provide the experience you need in a safe and friendly environment.
Aside from Toastmasters, the late writer-lecturer Dale Carnegie is another longtime, trusted resource in the public-speaking arena. A few of his more popular books on the art include The Art of Public Speaking and The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking.
Unwind Your Mind
Even when you believe you’ve thoroughly prepared yourself for a public-speaking engagement, it never hurts to tap into your mind-body connection for extra courage. From a medical perspective, Livestrong.com suggests massage, yoga, and meditation to calm frayed nerves before heading into a stressful situation.
- Get a massage. Getting a massage (especially with lavender essential oil) can help improve your focus and reduce anxiety.
- Practice savasana (corpse pose). Lie flat on your back, extend your arms away from your body with your palms facing upward, and separate and extend your legs. Breathe. Stay in this position for at least five to ten minutes.
- Meditate. Sit in a quiet place and focus only on your breath. Practicing meditation will reduce anxiety and give you the ability to think more clearly and articulate your thoughts better.
Just as it can be distressing to watch someone struggle through a presentation, it can also be positively inspiring to watch someone nail one. No discussion of effective public speaking would be complete without mentioning Barack Obama. Arguably one the most impactful speakers of our day, Obama not only possesses exceptional linguistic skills but also knows how to present himself and get people’s attention—and can leave an audience of thousands wondering what hit them. (Granted, he has an entire team of speech writers working for him, but still …) So the next time you find yourself standing beleaguered and besieged in front of a merciless crowd, remember that the words you use can be effective and meaningful, but the real strength lies in their delivery.