public speakingSpeaking Without Freaking

by Ann Harth

 

Rumour has it that public speaking is the number one fear in Western society today. Number Two? Death. As one well-known comedian pointed out: This means that at a funeral you'd rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy. 

OK, maybe this is a bit extreme, but if anyone can talk to you about the jitters when speaking in front of a group larger than two - it's me. When faced with an inescapable situation in which I am forced to perform, I am Queen of the Quakes.

Before I became serious about writing as a career, I had relegated public speaking to a handful of distant but unpleasant memories from high school and university. Speaking in front of a group seemed less inviting than stapling my fingers together. Even conferences and seminars frightened me in case I would be asked a question. It felt like a bolt of lightning struck my chest whenever I heard the words "We will go around the room and introduce ourselves…" 

As you may or may not know, this is exhausting - especially in our profession.  If we want to be successful, we will probably have to speak in public. Book signings, launches, speaking to groups of school children and groups of our peers can all generate a portion of the income that we need to support our writing habits. Accepting these opportunities can make a huge difference to our careers.

So what do you do?

Some people tiptoe into the water and get used to the temperature slowly before immersing themselves completely. Others dive in.

I dove.

I got fed up with my shaky knees and sweaty palms when I even thought about public speaking. I was confident within my areas of expertise and felt it was time to take another step in my career. I decided to take a giant leap outside of my comfort zone and approach the local Continuing Education Program with a short course I had developed. Nothing would come of it, I was sure. I wrote a hasty email: "You wouldn't be interested in an introductory writing course would you?" I hit 'send' and forgot about it, expecting them to do the same. Within 24 hours I received a reply. They were interested. Could I send my outline?

The knees started, the stomach boiled, the palms dripped. I sent my outline, credentials and was booked in to teach an eight-week course. Eight two-hour sessions of speaking in front of a classroom filled with people. Grown-up people.

I would beat this.

The human instinct when faced with fear is to fight or flee. How easy it would have been to back out. My pounding heart told me to run but my brain made me stick around and fight. I would practice and learn and talk myself into being the best teacher I could possibly be.

Before my first class, I did lots of research on overcoming the fear of public speaking and offered to give a few workshops with children at the local schools and libraries. This preparation was invaluable. The workshops were wonderful practice and did a lot for my confidence. I did have to throw away my entire program for two of the children's sessions due to imaginative minds that refused to be ignored but that only taught me an important lesson: Flexibility with children is crucial.

I would like to share with you some tips and facts that helped me to slow my pulse and calm my nerves when speaking in front of people. I hope it can help you as well.

Facts that can help:

  • You are not alone. Most people feel a certain amount of stage fright. Some feel a twinge of nervousness, others are terrified.
  • Even if your body's shaking and your hands are sweating, most of your nervousness is not visible to your audience. You probably look cool, calm and collected, even if you aren't.
  • Your audience wants you to succeed. Most of them know what it's like to be in your shoes. Have you ever seen a public speaker lose their nerve? It's as embarrassing for the audience as it is for the speaker. Your listeners are on your side.
  • No one is there to judge you as a person. They are interested in what you have to say. 
  • You don't have to be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Giggle a little and share the joke. 

A few healthy butterflies fluttering around in your stomach can actually make you perform better. They can help you to be more alert and aware.

Tips to Reduce Panic

Before:

  • Know your subject. Write the best speech / lesson you can. Prepare for possible questions. If you can't answer a question, it's not a drama. Just be sure that you can offer a reference or website where the answer may be found. 
  • Practice, practice, practice. Read your speech to yourself, read it aloud, practice in front of a mirror. This is the only way to discover places where you may stumble. Better to smooth things out before you are in front of your audience. Performing your speech also helps you to stay within your allotted time.
  • Be sure that you know the first few sentences of your speech by heart. This will get you started. After that the jitters should have settled and you can continue
  • Trust your audience. Like them and they will like you. 
  • Look your best. This doesn't mean a trip to the hairdressers or a brand new outfit (although it may) but be comfortable. You don't want to be wearing a skirt that needs adjusting every two minutes and you don't want to worry that your socks are falling down. Be aware of the image you will portray and make it your own.

During:

  • Before you begin speaking, take a few seconds to make eye contact with your audience. Smile. Set the tone.
  • Begin your talk with a greeting. A simple comment on the traffic, weather, the slippery steps or the difficult parking will put you and your audience at ease and serves as an informal greeting.
  • Introduce yourself and explain your purpose. Why are you here? Why did they come? What will have been accomplished by the end of the session?
  • Dive into your speech. Start your talk as you would start a story or an article. Attract the audience's attention. You can use a joke, an interesting fact or a short story. Personal anecdotes are often received well and give the audience more empathy with the speaker.
  • Make sure you have a safety net. Use a written outline or palm cards, but even if you're feeling confident be sure to stay on the right page. 
  • Make time for a question and answer period but it's best not to leave this until the very end. If this happens your speech can fizzle out. Ask for questions before you give your concluding remarks. When the questions dry up, you can stun them with your conclusion and end on a powerful note.

If these tips don't work for you, Toastmasters run sessions all over the country and you can learn to speak in public within a safe and supportive community. You can learn more about them at www.toastmasters.com

Obviously there is no fix-it-quick pill that will ease your misgivings when speaking in public but it does get easier very time you do it. Embrace every opportunity as a means to an end. Don't allow fear to stand between you and your goals. If I can do it, anyone can.

© Ann Harth

 

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