Worse than …?
Fear of public speaking is widely touted as the number one fear. The first well known survey in 1973 showed three times more people fear public speaking than death. More recent surveys show that between 40% and 60% of people are terrified of, or hate making speeches and presentations, with more women scared of public speaking than men. Even actors often dislike it because they are not in role and so the responsibility for the audience’s reaction lays squarely at their feet - not just due to how they perform, but what they say. However, like most things in life, if we examine what is really going on with these feelings of aversion, we can find a way to control them and maybe even turn them around. So, let’s look at some ways we could go about this:
Nerves are positive. Make the most of them.
The first step towards transforming these fears is to recognise them. Before you make a speech, greet your anxiety - tell yourself it’s as normal and common as the data shows. Moreover, the nerves are useful as they give you adrenaline and energy. But you can also help yourself overcome the uncomfortable consequences of nerves and prevent them spiralling out of control by making sure that instead of letting your thoughts and fears run away with you before speaking publicly, you take time to relax and be very present. Don’t worry too much about future outcomes, instead try putting them into perspective Don’t over-pressurise yourself with why this speech has to be the best it can be. There are many ways you might consider getting yourself to a state where you feel relaxed and ‘present’, each of which depends on the individual. If you have nervous energy to expend, do that by going for a walk, do some sit ups or another way of exerting yourself physically. Consider how you ‘travel’ to the event. Instead of having that coffee to wake you up, take the steps necessary to maintain calm. Or a combination of both if that is what works best for you.
Warm-ups are worth their weight in gold
Do some warm-ups to release tension, stretch the body and mouth and prepare the vocal cords. Hum to build resonance. If you aren’t speaking in your native tongue, then establishing the placement of the accent you are speaking in and doing tongue twisters can help. Do some deep breathing and let your attention follow the path of the breath. [breathe out, empty the lings of air, breath in again when you need more air (as deep breathing, many people find it too abstract without guidance)] Or try doing some other mindful action, like drinking water and observing the sensation of it.
Good preparation is the key
The preparation you have put into the speech you are making is also key to your feeling prepared for any eventuality and ability to remain present and calm. As well as being as well informed as possible on your given subject, it is crucial to consider in advance who your audience is and what their cultural expectations are. If you plan to use humour or tell a joke to a group publicly, try it out on a few people first. Offending someone or having it fall flat is awful so be self-deprecating or at least make sure the joke is on you. Ensure that you are considering the needs of all the different types of people in your audience and have visual, auditory and kinesthetic (feeling and emotional) aspects of the presentation for them to respond to. Make sure you have considered what questions they may ask and maybe have a story or anecdote up your sleeve that will serve to demonstrate something. A narrative or metaphor can help them connect with you personally, can change the mood or direction of a talk, can be often the most memorable part of a speech.
Another way to reduce the strain is by being well prepared in improvisation and structure. Sound like a contradiction in terms? Well it’s not. If you have a structure you are well rehearsed in, then when a question is fired at you like ‘What is the point of ….?’ the structure of ‘Where are we going, how, why?’ might be perfect and allow you to improvise around the question and give a well-considered answer. A question about the merits or suitability of a person for a situation might lend itself to a ‘Who, why, so what?’ structure. Also consider what sort of functional language you will be needing in the situation and use a thesaurus or take ideas from other speakers you hear, to increase your active vocabulary of useful phrases, such as for when you are unexpectedly interrupted or questioned. Having several phrases up your sleeve for quick responses is worth it’s weight in gold. Practising in advance with these and other structures can make you very much more confident about responding in the moment and make you sound much more authoritative in/about your topic.
Focus on engagement and goodwill
Interestingly, not only will practising presentation skills make you a better public speaker, but also a better communicator per se. A presentation is rarely only to get an audience to hear you. You inevitably want something from them and that requires you to actively listen and consider their needs. Practise active listening, practise considering questions by paraphrasing and reframing. What you learn to do in front of a whole crowd will stand you in good stead in your relationships too. Pausing before you respond, prevents you from saying something you might regret and allows you to see whether there might be a way to include others to give advice or guidance, thus creating more engagement and goodwill.
Ask your audience questions, make them feel involved
Practising these skills will vastly increase your confidence in communication and change your attitude to the whole process of making presentations. It is useful to see any speech not as a performance but as a conversation. Ask the audience questions to engage them and make them feel more included.
Physicality and Body Language
Be aware of your physicality when you speak. Stand with a relaxed but upright posture, feeling the connection to the earth in a reciprocal way, not rigid but secure and comfortable, able to move freely but without jerkiness or pacing. Be aware of not stepping away but leaning into your anxiety and audience. Keep your centre of gravity do not ‘over-move’ such as side stepping, as it will distract your audience. Be aware of your jaw and face so any tension can dissolve. Remember: Your body language and voice tone are more noticeable than the words you speak, so having some relaxation techniques up your sleeve is essential.
Trying too hard to get it right might be what stops you from getting it right
If a presentation is really important, or an interview, or any situation where you have to give an account of yourself in your own words, make sure you put the preparation in beforehand, so you can enjoy the experience of the connection of connecting with the people you are engaging with, and of communicating your message to them in the optimum way possible. Don’t judge yourself or your audience but focus instead on why you are all there. You have put in the preparation so trust in your good will and spontaneity. Allow the situation to be a fun and intuitive opportunity to enquire and learn about the topic in question. Trying too hard to get it right, might be what stops you from getting it right.
By Fiona Massari
Fiona teaches Public Speaking Skills, Accent Training and Accent Softening.
To enquire about Fiona's lessons, please click here