Not all of us are fortunate enough to take a Communications 101 course before performing in front of an audience. While some take to this task like a fish out of water, for most public speaking usually involves a bundle of nerves and awkwardness. I certainly didn’t have the luxury to prepare and practice before I was thrown into a public speaking arena without warning! However, my saving grace was that I had not made time to pick up my new eyeglasses and therefore, could not see the audience.
My first job in life actually warmed me up to speaking with strangers, despite my lack of formal pedagogy. I made door-to-door calls in downtown NOLA selling answering machine services. Glamorous it was not, but I needed a paycheck and figured the people I approached would never see me again. And how hard could it be to demonstrate pressing a button on an answering machine? Result – I made a paycheck! This job seasoned me to speak outside my comfort zone. A door slamming in your face can, at times, produce the positive results of making you stronger. My expectations were not high in the beginning, but amazingly, in the end, I had a career speaking to as many as 500 people. It took time, but I am here to offer some tips to get you started.
The better you understand your topic and the more organized you are is the key to success in public speaking. Many people have paralyzing fear, so to achieve the comfort zone you must practice, practice and practice. It’s always a luxury to have props – a podium or visuals – but sometimes it is just little old you on stage. Don’t let it be daunting. Practice where to put your hands, like 90-degree angles with lightly interlaced fingers, or a small pace, where you can move from one spot to another, slowly. I suggest to practice with friends and those who make you feel comfortable. Just adding a partner or pal is far more realistic than speaking into the mirror for hours on end! You get used to seeing reactions, adjusting (or not) to their faces. And don’t fear those silent moments from the audience, people need time to let the material they hear sink in. Most importantly, if you are comfortable with yourself, it becomes very contagious to the audience, and you establish an ease in the atmosphere. If I use humor and then hear laughter, it’s like liquid Valium all the way to the finish line! Perhaps you try this method – a short, topical quip or joke will set a positive tone and a relationship with your audience. If it flops, just say something like, “That was a joke, friends, you can chuckle!” You will learn naturally by your mistakes as each speech becomes easier, more natural, and more spontaneous.
My first big gig was when I had been hired by an HR company to explain health care benefits to employees of small to very large audiences. I had 2 weeks to make myself familiar, if not an expert, with the language and concept of benefits offerings. Trust me, it would have been easier to learn Mandarin Chinese! This was a big deal to me and I felt like I was responsible for the wellness of the employees. All I had backing me was a few public speaking courses in college and good feedback. Public speaking required intense self-educating on my subject matter. There isn’t a calm clinic to attend before walking on stage. All you need to know is this speech will end and then you’ll instantly be more experienced in public speaking.
Fear of public speaking is extremely normal. I personally use humor to bait my audience, no matter the subject, and it is very easy for me to laugh at myself. It will warm the audience up if you use humor and help you unwind as well. Speaking to an audience is a tough fear to conquer, so I don’t want to minimize it. At the same time, I cannot stress enough how good you will feel once you are no longer afraid of commanding attention and speaking up. It actually can become addictive, looking forward to delivering information to people. I tell any young person, if you want to experience a powerful drug, don’t look to a substance – try public speaking! The dopamine anticipation, the rush of sweat and nausea just before, the act of getting into a “flow” and in the zone on stage, then the euphoria afterwards… it’s a stronger than any pill and is a healthy and positive connection that fills you up and doesn’t send you crashing down afterwards (even if you bomb, you learn and that desire to prove yourself keeps driving you forward to try again).
One of my most memorable public speaking jobs was working for Charity Hospital as a Smoking Cessation Specialist. Keep in mind first that I have never smoked! Talk about needing to do my homework! My audience were patients who had chronic lung issues and I was a one-woman show, as I created my own props and speeches before delivering information to underprivileged sick people. Some were in wheelchairs, some tethered with oxygen machines, and all living in poverty, but wanted so badly to kick their smoking habit. I knew I had to research the world of smoking to the bone, not to mention the medical aspects and seriousness of smoking. I had to connect with these patients and craft a way to help them possibly save their lives. Monumental? Maybe in the beginning, but soon it was like being wrapped in the most comfortable warm blanket with the hope that I might just affect and celebrate one person quitting smoking. I needed my presentation to deliver important motivation and empowerment, and not just entertain.
Remember that you can deliver a speech with confidence that will make a difference. Practice. You do not have to deliver the words verbatim. One tip I’ve heard is to memorize the parts of your talk like you’re walking through rooms in your house. The foyer is the opening lines, the living room is the thesis, the spare bath is a funny anecdote, and so on. Memory devices like this help you deliver naturally and relaxed, and help you restart where you left off, if you forget a part. If you are able to reach out and connect to just one person, you will feel terrific about yourself. What would you say if the whole world was listening? Well, the stage awaits, my friends…