It's been said that the fear of public speaking is up there with the fear of death. I'm not sure if this is true, it might be, or it might be a lie that people use to sell public speaking courses and coaching for performance anxiety - which I do provide, coaching for performance anxiety, so to be safe I think I'm just not going to mention the whole thing about fear of death.
In any case, it's probably fair to say that most people are pretty scared of public speaking. And maybe it comes from early tribal life where there'd be tribal leaders and tribespeople, and to stand up in front of the group could have been challenging and defying leadership. Or maybe it's like a little elk, a cute little elk, not wanting to go outside the group of elks and stand out, because tigers love the taste of elk.
I love public speaking, but that is a somewhat recent phenomenon for me. During my childhood and teenagerhood and young adulthood I really didn't. I was the kind of kid that put intentionally naughty material at the beginning of my class speech so that I'd get told off and sent to the principal, so I didn't have to complete the speech. You know, that kind of kid. And my wedding speech was pretty much me standing in front of the group looking awkward, scanning the room for people to thank, awkwardly.
When I started doing more senior jobs in corporate IT, it became clear that public speaking was something I'd have to at least get comfortable with. I remember at the time I realised this, my strategy for getting better was simply putting myself out there by developing and presenting IT based training for members of the team I was in at the time. I also remember the first time I did this, and about half way through pausing and saying, "Wow, this is really boring isn't it, I didn't know that I could bore myself." Work was needed. And looking back, this was the establishment of my now maybe overused meta-commentary in my presentations.
After reading what I could on public speaking, going to a really good course that included presentations to a couple hundred people, and briefly attending a public speaking weekly meeting, I started feeling more comfortable with it and started getting a bit better. I was finding that my presentations at work were improving, and I continued developing and presenting new ideas inside and outside of business pretty much for the fun of it. I always enjoyed having a level of light-heartedness when I presented which eventually lead to me try stand-up comedy.
So I had three different kinds of presentations going on here, with different audiences and different expectations. In business presentations the expectation was that I'd present information and people would learn from it. In my public presentations it was more about sharing ideas that would inspire people to think differently and try new things. In the stand-up comedy it was to take an audience of people and provide amusement.
There are many similarities with these three styles of presenting and also many differences. This article is focussing on the similarities, a brief overview of some of the things that I have found to be most useful whatever I present and in whatever context. I'm going to break it down into four sections, Material, State, Voice, and Presentation.
I'm often told that presentation and performance skills are the most important thing, but I disagree. Hear me out. Have a think about what makes people nervous about talking in front of a group. Most of the time it's a fear of them forgetting what they are talking about, not being good enough at responding to questions, and generally looking silly. Much of avoiding this comes down to knowing the material you are presenting. Knowing material means knowing it well enough that you don't have to follow a script or memorise a low level sequence. I liken it to explaining your work to a stranger, it's something that you would be able to do naturally because you know your work. If the stranger asks questions along the way, you could comfortably answer them without panicking.
Knowing material puts you at ease. With that ease you can now focus on the audience, analysing their reactions, adjusting to them, and eliciting the kind of response and emotion you want from them. Also it allows the speaker to adjust their material, or reorder, depending on the audience in the moment. It would be very hard to do so without knowing the material, as most of the effort would be toward trying to remember what you're saying.
I tend to create the subjects I talk about in corporate and personal development presentations, so not only do I know them enough to speak naturally about them, no-one else knows the subject so wouldn't know if I didn't. I am teaching new ideas. In stand-up it's similar, everyone writes their own material and memorises it to different levels depending on how precise the structure and language needs to be.
The next thing about comfortably giving a speech is the state of mind that the speaker is in. Often when someone knows that they need to present something, they get frightened about even the idea of presenting it. I have met professional speakers and comedians who have this problem, before every appearance they have bad anxiety, but when they get on the stage they are ok. Newer speakers tend to have the anxiety both beforehand and during the presentation, although as previously mentioned knowing the material can help significantly.
I tend to find that those with the biggest fear of being on stage are more afraid about the idea of going on stage than actually going on stage. Anxiety is a forward thinking condition, you can't be anxious about something you've already done. Anxiety is about what might happen and the uncomfortableness about uncertain results. Usually I find that when people with anxiety get on stage they aren't as bad as they thought they'd be.
There are exceptions, people who are just so terrified about getting on stage that they'd never even consider it. And people who manage to get themselves up there but their focus is so much centred on how badly it could go that they figuratively fall apart. There are several coaches and therapists out there who provide sessions to overcome or at least reduce this extreme nervousness, which is something I provide myself on a limited basis, mainly using a method called Provocative Therapy and hypnotherapy. Get in touch with me at www.richardlindesay.com/coaching for details. Yes, that was a little ad break, but while people find that kind of service very useful I strongly suggest that most people can overcome such problems themselves.
Have you ever been to a presentation, or watched someone on stage, and their voice was so difficult to listen to that you had trouble paying attention? Most people who have been in the corporate world for some time are familiar with this, struggling not to nod off while someone is talking in a monotonous tone about the company's results and plans for the next quarter.
Would it be too obvious to say that use of the voice is one of the most important parts of speaking? It is. However many people involved in public speaking don't spend a great deal of attention toward improving their voice, or using their voice to the best of their ability.
I like to record any speeches I do and listen back, and voice is one of the main things I pay attention to. And over time I've got used to paying attention to how my voice sounds as I am talking. One thing I have noticed with people who are nervous of public speaking is they often talk too quickly maybe because they want to get it over and done with. A dual benefit of slowing down is that the audience can take in what you are saying, and it also gives you time to pay attention to the audience and get ready for what you are going to say next.
For those wanting to take public speaking further, it couldn't hurt to employ the services of a voice coach. I'd recommend Laura Spicer, http://www.laura-spicer.com/.
Have you ever been to a corporate presentation where the person is at the front of the room talking about God knows what, and most participants are looking down, playing on their phones, or off with the fairies? Meanwhile the person presenting continues to drone on seemingly not noticing what is going on, or maybe noticing but not knowing what to do about it. Or maybe not caring.
I like to think that the presenter's job is to pay attention to what the experience of their presentation is like for their audience. Straight up I find that doing something that has visual impact gets their initial attention, which is a good start. In presentations I might draw something up on the board which is incomplete or requires thought. In stand-up comedy I dress or place myself in a way that gets the audiences attention and gets them thinking "there's something wrong here, and I want to see what it is."
Once the audiences attention is captured, it's then about directing the focus of the room toward what you are wanting to put across. For presentations, simply pointing to visual aids usually gets people looking, as it's hard to resist following a point. If the attention of the crowd is waning I find that pausing and looking at the audience usually gets their attention back. Acknowledging distractions, such as noises and new people entering the room, keeps you in charge of the focus and allows you to redirect the attention back toward your presentation. If there is a crowd which are largely not interested, I find that focussing on the people in the room who are the most interested seems to make the interest spread. As does focussing on the back of the room first and working my way forward.
The short version of my advice to new speakers, is to learn your material enough that you really know it, get out there and start presenting in some way, and pay attention to the results. Pay attention by watching back video recordings, asking audience members for honest feedback, and then adjust based on consistent feedback. Continue doing this and you'll likely get better.
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