The only formal training on public speaking I ever had was when I was 14. I was a Boy Scout then working on my public speaking merit badge. To fulfill the necessary requirements I had to show up every Tuesday night for six weeks at a local chapter of Toastmasters in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For those six Tuesday nights I would arrive promptly at 7:00 in my khaki uniform and join a small band of executives devoted to the art of public speaking. To be honest, the group was amused and pleased by my being there. I became their temporary mascot of sorts.
After completing the requirements and collecting my merit badge I never really gave public speaking another thought. However, not long after I passed the Master’s Exam fellow MS Fred Dame asked me to help teach an Introductory Course for the now long-defunct Julliard Alpha Distributorship in the Bay Area. The class numbered over 400 in size which has to be the largest Intro Course ever given. I clearly remember being the rookie and feeling terrified the first few times I stood in front of the huge assemblage of sales people and managers. Somehow, I made it through my lectures without melting down, humiliating myself, or suffering a major wardrobe malfunction.
As I gained more teaching experience in the years after I would still have trouble sleeping the night before the first day of a class. However, through repetition and accrued experience the prospect of standing in front of a group to speak seemed less daunting and finally—hard to believe—it’s something I now look forward to.
Getting Beyond the Fear Factor
The question remains: how can one quickly and easily get over the anxiety/potential terror of standing in front of a group when just getting into the game? I’m not sure there’s one answer to that question. I do recall a huge shift happened for me when I was able to focus all my attention on whatever group I was speaking to vs. internally and microscopically on myself. Along with that outward focus came an intense—even compulsive—desire to make sure that the group really “got” whatever it was that I was teaching/presenting. More on that later. In lieu of lots of actual experience, here are three strategies that will help if you find yourself in the life-threatening dilemma of having to talk to a group of fellow humans for the very first time.
EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique consists of tapping on acupressure points to stabilize and redistribute energy in the body’s meridians. It’s the quickest and easiest way I know of to alleviate fear or discomfort in a few short minutes. I teach all the students I coach EFT to help with test anxiety. Instructions can be found in a previous post at the following page:
The strategy of spin dynamics takes full advantage of the fact that everything in the universe—from solar systems down to sub-atomic particles—spins. Our feelings are no exception and Spin Dynamics, developed by Tim and Kris Hallbom and Richard Bandler, allows us to take conscious control of our negative feelings like the fear of public speaking by first becoming aware of the direction that they move/spin in our body and then consequently reversing the spin to release them. It’s a strategy that can be easily learned and it never fails to produce the desired results. Instructions for Spin Dynamics can be found at this link:
Circle of Excellence
The two previous strategies are all about alleviating and redirecting fear. However, in releasing the fear factor you’ve also created a vacuum of sorts that needs to be filled with a powerful resource state and there’s none better than confidence. I’ve never found a more effective strategy for instantly dropping into a powerfully confident state than the Circle of Excellence. I recommend it to anyone because it has unlimited applications:
Caring Overriding Fear
Neuroscientists tell us that our nervous system can’t do two things at the same time. In the context of public speaking that means you can’t simultaneously freak out and focus on giving a good presentation. It doesn’t work and never will. The goal then becomes to give your nervous system a choice and here is where caring about your attendees and making sure they “get” what you’re teaching really comes into play. The important thing to realize is that ultimately you aren’t the focus/center of attention but more like the conduit or connection for getting important information to the audience. It’s your job to know what you’re teaching and then to get out of your own way to convey the information to the group as best you can. That’s the deal. Which means you really need to…
Know It Cold
At least know the first three-to-five things you’re going to say—but know them cold. Practice the first several things you’re going to say out loud repetitively until they come quickly and easily. Once you’re past the initial several talking points odds are you’ll be fine unless of course you haven’t prepared enough or have no clue what you’re talking about. That’s another thing altogether.
If using PowerPoint be able to either look at the confidence monitor (or your laptop) or the actual screen and immediately point out the most important bullet/bit of information on the slide. All too often, and here I’m as guilty as anyone, there’s entirely too much information on a PPT slide. If you run a couple dozen overly crowded slides together you risk putting a group of any size into a deep trance in a matter of a few minutes. To avoid the deep crowd alpha state help your attendees by sorting the information presented by relative importance. They’ll thank you for it by remaining sentient and even attentive.
Most sources on public speaking I’ve read emphasize making eye contact with the audience. One article even suggested looking over everyone’s head if you can’t face actually looking at the attendees. Not sure about that one. Other sources suggest making eye contact with as many people as possible during the presentation. I disagree and for a simple reason: if the intent behind making eye contact is to create some kind of connection with the group, how can one possibly create any connection at all with just a second or two of eye contact? My advice is make eye contact with fewer people but for a slightly longer period of time, as in three-to-five seconds or the however long it takes to explain a complete thought.
Uncomfortable making eye contact with complete strangers? You’re not alone. It takes practice. I suggest that over the next week make eye contact with people you pass on the street just long enough to recognize the color of their eyes. You don’t have to smile or do anything else. Just make eye contact. The next step is to make longer eye contact with the people who you interact with daily such as grocery store clerks, bank clerks, and the like. At this stage, looking at someone’s entire face is a good start if not looking at both of their eyes. Once you get more comfortable, make longer eye contact with someone by focusing on one of their eyes. Use a soft gaze. No hard staring as that equals creepy bus driver. The final phase of the eye contact thing is being comfortable making eye contact for extended periods of time—always respectfully—with someone you know or even the attendees in your audience.
Make It Conversational
For me the last piece of the public speaking puzzle is making a presentation conversational. By that I mean presenting has to feel exactly the same as when you talk to a good friend. Imagine that you are deep in conversation with someone you know well about an experience you both shared or a topic you’re both interested in. Recall the comfort level, the state of presence, and your attentiveness; also remember how you “held the space” for the other person you were speaking to, and at the risk being repetitive, how much you “cared” about the other person getting what you were saying. Really get that feeling because it’s your target on many levels when presenting. It also goes without saying that your tonality, pacing, and phrasing have to be similar, if not the same, in both contexts.
Practice your tonality. Record yourself speaking so you can calibrate where your tonality is in terms of range. If you have a high nasal voice by all means work on speaking from your throat or even lower down in your chest. The latter two are more pleasing to the ear and actually more effective in communicating. A quick strategy for improving your tonality is to hum the tune to “Happy Birthday” and then speak immediately after with the same tonality. Try it; it really works.
I have a simple yet very effective strategy for presenting that I came across by accident. The strategy is this: I usually get to the venue early to make sure the AV is properly set up and to get a feel for the space. After checking the setup, I make it a point to chat with my contact and their staff. When the doors open I introduce myself to the first few attendees who wander in and inevitably sit in the front row. I chat up these early arrivals to find out where they’re from and what they do. By doing so I accomplish two things: I now have a head start on establishing the desired connection so when the actual presentation starts it’s as if I’m still speaking directly to them. I also set up the conversational tone I’ll use later in the presentation. Once the actual presentation starts it’s a simple process of initially acknowledging the early arrivals then making eye contact with the people behind them and so on until I’ve connected with people in all corners of the room, all the while using the conversational tone of voice.
One Final Thought
Don’t freak out if the audience doesn’t respond to you. Sometimes when I’m in front of group it’s like I’m doing standup in a Siberian nightclub because no one is giving any feedback whatsoever. When that happens, I refocus my efforts to connect with either individuals or groups of people in the audience. In the end, I’m often surprised when someone who looked like a complete zombie the entire time I was speaking comes up and tells me that they really enjoyed my presentation and learned a lot. One never knows…