How to Survive Public Speaking
The three greatest fears for humankind are Death, Tax Time and Public Speaking; but the greatest of these fears is Public Speaking. For some, the idea of standing up in front of a roomful of total strangers is worse than being audited; and for many, death itself would be preferable to having to speak publicly.
Maybe this has happened to you. Someone introduces you and you walk up to the podium. You look out on that sea of unfamiliar faces, and your heart starts to pound in your chest, your mouth goes dry, your palms begin to sweat and your stomach gives a lurch. You had a speech prepared, but every bit of information you had intended to share just flies out of your brain, like so many uncaged birds. The butterflies in your stomach have become iron pellets. And like a bad sitcom, everything goes into slow motion, and you imagine that the audience is now pointing at you and laughing.
Stop right there, take a deep breath and relax. Every public speaker has had a nerve- wracking experience at least once in his or her life. But it doesn’t have to be that bad, and there are several ways to make your next public speaking experience less stressful, maybe even fun. The good news is that public speaking isn’t fatal.
The first thing to ask yourself is to whom will you be speaking? Speaking to a convention of bankers or investors is completely different than speaking to a convention of say, meat packers, or giving a toast at a wedding. Know your audience. If you are giving a speech at a seminar, you have information to impart to your audience; they’re there because you can teach them something.
Once you’ve determined who your audience will be, it’s time to prepare your speech or presentation. The more you know about your topic and the better prepared you are, the less nervous you’ll be, so really get to know your material. Practice your speech or presentation in front of a mirror and pay attention to your body language.
Should you bring notes or depend on your memory? Because it is a stressful time, most speakers bring notes with them. How awful would it be to become so nervous, you forgot everything you were going to say, and you just stood there, trying desperately to remember your speech? Always take notes with you. But just use them as a guide; don’t recite from your notes, unless you’d like your audience to nap while you speak to them.
The first thirty seconds are the hardest to get through, but are of the greatest importance. In that first thirty seconds, you must grab your audience’s attention; get them interested in what you have to say. You’re probably asking, “How exactly do I do that?” Well, you could start with a joke, depending of course on your audience. Humor might not be appropriate for some gatherings. You could ask a provocative question, or quote a famous person.
Watch your body language. If you’re using a podium, stand naturally behind it; don’t grip the edges, as if you’re afraid of being blown off the dais. Place your notes on the podium, smile at the audience, and while maintaining eye contact, begin your speech or presentation. Hand gestures and facial expression are important. Moving about a little is okay, but try not to pace back and forth across the stage or dais. It can make your audience nervous.
Remember to take it easy and not rush through your presentation or speech, pause now and then, consult your notes when necessary and try to relax. Remind yourself to speak slowly and clearly, avoiding slang. Stick to your speech or presentation; try not to go off on tangents that are sure to confuse your audience.
Know when you’re done. Avoid rambling on, repeating yourself, or going off topic. Tell them what you need to tell them, give them the information they came to hear, then wrap it up. If you planned on a question and answer period, let them know you’re ready for their questions. When you’re done, say thank you and walk off the dais.
Dales Carnegie was quoted as saying that, “Great speakers are not born, they’re trained.” That means that, as with most things in life, preparation is the key. When you’re prepared, when all your ducks are in a row, and you feel like you know what you’re doing, you’ll be much less nervous.
So, walk up to that podium, look your audience in the eyes, smile, act like you own the place, and begin. You will survive; in fact, you will be good and interesting. You might even learn to enjoy the experience as a public speaker.