Public speaking can be exhilarating and frightening. To take off the edge, I like to break the process of public speaking into 4 different stages: Preparation, Practice, Presentation and Performance.
My first step is to prepare my speech. I brainstorm all the things that would be relevant for the presentation and then think of a logical structure and flow. I like to think of stories and analogies that add to the presentation and that I can share off the cuff. It is amazing to see how people’s engagement and interest changes when you share a personal anecdote. We (as a species) love storytelling, so the more stories I can incorporate into my speech, the better. I try to boil my presentation down to 3 key points. I think it is a torturous experience when listening to a presenter who is reading from a thick ream of paper and they are flitting randomly through the pages (so you can’t even gauge of how long the speech will be!) A great writer once told me that you tell the audience what you will tell them, tell them and then tell them what you have told them. By chunking the speech I don’t feel as overwhelmed in preparing as I only need to think of three smaller ideas rather than the whole speech.
Words sound different in our head as they do when they are spoken. After I have written/typed my speech I like to have a hard copy which I practice speaking with. As I verbalise my written speech I cover my page with handwritten notes and rephrase different paragraphs (so that they come across better, or they are more easily understood). If I think of an anecdote or a story, that relays my point, I will jot this down. I then practice my speech again and again and again.
It is good to experience delivering a bad speech. For many years I was a camp leader at Don Bosco Camp in Dromana. I remember at 15 I bolstered up the courage to lead my first call and response chant (the chant was called “Funky Chicken” for all you old camp leaders out there!) Without any introduction I stood up in front of the group, and with a bright red face I blurted out the first line. As I hadn’t explained the song, no one in the room knew what to do. In a panic I skipped to the final stanza (“Ain’t nothing but nothing but a tooty fruity get on the floor and shake that booty”) and then proceeded to dance in front of everyone. Man it was painful! As I sat down, my good friend Jacqui commended my efforts and gave me some kind feedback. She suggested it might have been good to 1. Get everyone’s attention before starting; 2. Explain the chant; and then 3. Lead the chant. Sage advice which I still remember! This is now a funny story which I tell, while it was a somewhat embarrassing moment at the time, I learned a lot from the experience and have garnered lots of laughs from the retelling of the event.
At the start of the year I was lucky to MC the “Startup” stage at the conference Pause Fest. As an MC I was given a free pass to the 3 days of the festival. My speaking slot was for Friday. On the first day of the conference (Thursday) I was blown away by the space and the professionalism of the event. It was quite a slick event and I remember feeling way out of my league. Feeling this sense of angst, I made the snap decision to leave in the middle of the day and get a haircut. I recognise that for me to feel confident to present the next day I needed more time to prepare myself emotionally. So I left, got a haircut, went home and worked out what I would wear the following day, and spent some time with my notes and practiced. To feel more confident at the event, I wanted to make myself look as though I belonged. Public speaking is a very anxiety inducing thing. I find it is helpful to try and remove as many things as possible that can cause angst (i.e. content, appearance etc.) so that I can focus on connecting with the audience in a way that is authentic and engaging.
Show time! Feeling nervous is totally normal. Billy Connolly shared that he is “riddled with anxiety and self doubt every time” he performs. However he also believes that the nerves are good for him as they force him to work harder and not become complacent. Alan Alda frequently shares that he reframes his anxious feelings before a performance as excitement. This technique has been termed “anxiety reappraisal” and has been shown to work. This process shifts our mindset from threat to opportunity and causes us to interpret our situation differently.
When faced with a room full of people I quell my nerves by having a few small chats with the individuals in the room (as they arrive). I ask them how their journey was, or (if at a conference) I ask what has been their favourite presentation so far. This turns a sea of strangers into a forum of friends. When feeling a little lost on stage, I seek out my new friends and this eye contact and connection supports me to get back on track.
Breathing is another great technique. Sometimes I feel I need to bring my energy levels down a bit so I will practice breathing, find a quiet space and let out some strange noises etc. While speaking I make an effort to collect myself. Sometimes when beginning a presentation I’ll pause a moment just before I start and take a deep breath. I find by calming myself, the audience seems a little calmer (see this great article on Primal Leadership).
Before performing improv comedy my old team and I would always do a series of warm up activities. These typically shake out nerves, but also reframe nervous energy as excited energy. Our brains sharpen and we become more alert. Learning improvisational comedy is incredible for improving spontaneity on stage. So much of improv is about listening and recalling previously mentioned ideas and bringing everything together to a nice tight conclusion. I have found this especially useful when facilitating a discussion - as at the very end I can incorporate many of the participants' insights into my conclusion.
Sometimes I can have a mind block on stage. I was lucky with a previous role to often have a co-facilitator. When presenting to a large group of students if I came to a mind block I’d turn to my co-facilitator and say, “Cheyne, do you have anything to add?” This was code for, “I have nothing to say and I need a moment to collect my thoughts.” As my co-facilitator shared for 30 seconds or so I’d glance at my notes, or take a moment to plan what’s next. Obviously, for this to work I needed to share this “code phrase” with my co-facilitator. I remember when presenting with a new colleague one time I reached out with a "do you have anything you'd like to add" and he left me there with a, “no, you’ve covered everything!”
These are just a few tips that may help you in your next speech. I feel that public speaking is an ongoing learning process, one that is both terrifying and exciting. What are some tips/advice that you have from your experience?
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