Like most people, I never dreamed I'd someday find myself speaking before groups about matters of importance to me. Even more unbelievable, that I'd do so without terror.
When my first book, a guide for parents full of creative activities for kids, came out, years ago now, it hadn't occurred to me that speaking in public about it would be necessary or helpful. Then I got a call from a local bookstore asking me to give a workshop for a small group of families. In spite of my panic, I agreed. Preparing for that first talk was so stressful that I resorted to asking my doctor for a prescription for some calming medication. And I brought my teenaged son along for support.
Before long, I was talking to larger and larger groups, at bookstores, organization meetings, and even conferences. My confidence increased a little with each speech. When my book Writing in Flow came out, I spoke at so many places, and with such relative ease, that the book landed on the L.A. Times Bestseller List. As timid and self-conscious as I was, I managed to get comfortable enough at a podium to speak to a full auditorium at a Festival of Books held at UCLA.
Odd tips have always circulated for putting yourself at ease in front of a group, including visualizing your audience naked. The reasoning behind that idea is to keep in mind that your listeners are just ordinary people like you. What works best for me, though, is to remember what it feels like when I'm the one sitting in the audience: I come to a speech to learn something in an engaging way. I'm not grading the speaker (unless I've paid a fortune to hear him or her). I'm easy to please, so long as I come away with something memorable for the time I spent. And I like to assume that my audience is similarly pleasable. In reality, your audience is mostly pleased it's you up there and not them.
John Greene, an expert in communication anxiety at Purdue University, found that if you concentrate on communicating rather than performing, those butterflies will likely drift off and bother someone else. On the other hand, don't forget that the state of emotional arousal that comes with feeling a little nervous is good for your energy level. Not too anxious, but not so ho-hum that you're bored and boring -- that's the right balance. Sounds like the same balance you need to enter flow, and sure enough, if you can get there while speaking, the time will fly.
If you're genuinely interested in the audience and their needs, they'll feel it and enjoy the talk. With experience, you learn to judge the audience. You can develop your friendly story-telling ability by going through your material and choosing the most amusing or evocative anecdotes. People love stories and specifics they can identify with.
Here are ten widely-agreed-upon field-tested suggestions for taking the terror out of public speaking:
1. Write your own mini-biography to send or hand to whoever is introducing you, and then you won't have to repeat that stuff in your talk itself. It's always more palatable to hear nice things about the speaker when the speaker isn't the one saying them. Keep it simple; if it's too detailed and laudatory, the audience may become suspicious that you wrote it.
2. Know who you're talking to, why they're attending this particular meeting, and what they expect from you. Discuss all this with the person who invited you to speak, and ask to be sent a copy of the announcement about your talk in advance so you know for sure there are no crossed wires over your topic.
3. A handout of some sort can be useful, especially if you have statistics to share, but keep it simple so that your audience isn't pulled into reading rather than listening to you. Same with all visual aids: they can be distancing and distracting, so use them thoughtfully.
4. Prepare. The better prepared you are, the more you'll be able to make your talk sound informal and friendly. But that doesn't mean it should come across slick or hokey. You may want to print out your notes in a large font (so you don't have to wear reading glasses). I would paste mine in order onto 5 x 7 cards. It's great if you're smooth enough not to have to refer to your notes, but a casual glance down now and then is better than rambling and forgetting your main points.
5. Give your audience the big picture in your introduction, then fill in the details. Stick to one or a very few main points. A startling statement is a fine way to begin. Find something that hooks your listeners right away. End with a brief summary but don't repeat exactly what you've said or they'll tune out.
6. Aim for a balance of emotional and rational content. When you're new at public speaking, you may need to think about this explicitly. People learn in different ways, such as via seeing, hearing, or doing, so try to include some variety in your presentation.
7. Humor is almost always welcome, but sophisticated audiences hate hearing obviously canned jokes. With practice, you'll find out what works, what gets a laugh, what gets a groan, and what is met with silence. The humor ought to come naturally from the material, if it lends itself to that.
8. Practice modulating your voice -- there's nothing worse than a monotone.
9. Practice in front of friends, family, or a tape recorder. At first, even this seemed terrifying to me, so I'd just practice my talks speaking quietly while sitting at my desk and checking the time. You must hear yourself at least once before you go public, however. It's the only way you can decide what should be edited out: whatever sounds "off" or boring or doesn't add to your main points in an engaging way.
10. Make eye contact with your audience members, a few seconds each, and smile. Your warmth will come across and your audience will be in a mood to like you. Most of them anyway, and that's all that matters.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry