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Posted: April 08, 2014

Five tips for public speaking success

Take a breath. Or two.

Gale Dunlap

I just got off the phone with a client who’s got to speak in front of 500 people next month – probably in some impersonal hotel ballroom complete with dais, a lonely wooden lectern in center stage and flooded with very bright lights…focused right on her.

She knows her material, speaks well in front of smaller, more intimate groups, but every time she tries to speak to large groups of people physical changes happen. Her voice gets shaky; her vision blurs; she feels wobbly. So, other than that, things are just fine. HA…Not.

Can you relate to this? I can. Every time I had to speak I would begin stewing about it as soon as I hung up the phone or sent an email saying I would speak. That could be six months in advance or two weeks.

My negative self-talk would begin immediately like a gunshot starting a race. What if my mind goes blank? What if I faint? What if my throat constricts and my voice sounds like I’ve just taken a huge dose of helium. Someone on stage sounding like Daffy Duck does not carry much gravitas.

On and on I would go, focusing on all the bad what-ifs, dreading my speaking date and wondering why I had accepted.

I’ll tell you why we accept those dates: because we’re professionals who know our material. In fact, we often are in a position of authority because we are experts in our field.

That’s why people call us to speak. Our material excites us and we’re happy to tell anyone we meet about it, but especially if they come in groups of 10 or fewer.

However getting on stage with 1,000 eyeballs staring at you…well, we don’t even want to go there. Where are the doughnuts or scotch when you need them?

Miraculously I now speak comfortably to large and small groups. I even teach others to get over their fear. Can you believe it? I can’t.

I love to talk with people, even in enormous impersonal settings. I’ve learned to avoid ruminating about all the bad what-ifs; to focus on the material, and to practice a few tricks I’ve learned that have helped me when my anxiety creeps back – which it still does at times.

As I refer to it, I’ve learned to manage my own personal anxiety attack.

Here’s some advice:

Know your material cold. I know you know this but it’s still the number one thing to do. Especially if your personal anxiety attack renders you slightly blind so you can’t read your notes. Which, by the way, should be only a sparse outline – NEVER READ YOUR TALK.  But you know this too. It’s incredibly boring; you sound stilted; you’ll lose your place and then you’ll be stuck with really frightening silence as you try to find where you left off. You know it’s better to speak with your head up, looking out and engaging with your audience. So do it.

Talk to people in your audience. Take some time before you speak to talk to a few random individuals in your audience. Somehow this works to break the ice you have forming in your brain. You no longer view your audience as one scary mass sitting before you. They are individuals; you’ve met a few. You know they aren’t out to hurt you. You might even incorporate a conversation you had into your talk. It can make your speech more relevant and the person you mention will feel like the Most Important Person in the Room. You now have a new best friend.

Throw a question to the audience. This is really helpful. I can’t tell you how many times I feel fine until I’m introduced and I make the looooooong walk to the podium. All the physical reactions can come up – sweaty palms, dizzy feelings, dry throat (have water near the podium, by the way). When I feel this happening I will almost immediately ask a question of the audience. There is something comforting about this interchange and it breaks my brain freeze. I am then speaking to ONE person and he/she is just speaking to me. It has a significant calming effect.

Walk around (and don’t forget to breathe). You can take your outline with you for security if you like. Moving will make you feel better – it gets the blood flowing. Your brain needs that, now. Besides, I know you’ve watched speakers as they clutch the podium for dear life, not moving an inch. It’s much more interesting to see speakers moving and gesturing appropriately. Remember, this is the way we speak to people when we feel normal. Let me add here: don’t overdo it. I’m not recommending that you flap around the stage. That is a distraction. But moving as you speak is normal and will help engage the audience in what you’re saying.

Prepare. This is sort of a summary point. It assumes that you know your material, but practice presenting it – many times: in your living room to bunch of empty chairs and the piano. Or ideally, go to a hotel ballroom, walk around, get on stage, get the feel so it breaks the spell of doom and disaster. Ever heard the expression, “what you know can’t hurt you.” It’s true here. But certainly get to your talk early. Make sure things work – audio, slide presentation, lights (maybe ask if they can dim them). Know the questions you’re going to ask the audience. And how about making a connection with the tech guy. You will want to have a close personal relationship in case something happens.  Ask him (it’s usually a him) to please stick around.

I promise you, if you do these things you will feel better and therefore give a better presentation. And the more you speak, the better you’ll get. That doesn’t mean you won’t ever have unsettling feelings. You may, but you’ll be better prepared to handle them. And besides, it really is true that when you have some adrenalin moving through your system, you will give a more dynamic talk. If you want some more pointers, take two breaths and call me.

Gale Dunlap is President of Standout Strategies, a company that helps business owners and job seekers market themselves and their businesses more effectively. Her career has included management consulting and operating management. in marketing strategy and management training for companies such as Amoco, Pfizer Pharmaceutical, the Kauffman Foundation, and many start-ups and nonprofits. For more detail visit www.standout-strategies.com, call 303-250-8039 and connect with Gale on LinkedIn

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Readers Respond

Great Article.....I will definitely use your tips when speaking to the public in the future By Sam Dobbins on 2014 04 09
Great information! Since I have some talks coming up- this will really help! Thank you! By Karen Harrison on 2014 04 08
This is a great summary and reminder every time you have a speaking opportunity, small or big. Thanks for putting the article into the five tips. By Holly on 2014 04 08
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