By Sig Nordal, Jr.
Many of us, indeed most of us, are nervous of speaking in public be it for a large crowd of people or a more intimate setting with under ten people concentrating on what we are saying. This could be a presentation, an interview, a speech or even within a meeting. In fact, the more intimate the setting the more nervous we can feel as we are able to see each and every person and their reactions to our words.
Many people suffer from a great deal of stress and anxiety before (and indeed during) such public speaking where they can feel themselves start to sweat, feel their hands or knees shake and their heart pounding. Often the ‘speaker’ can speak too quickly or forget half of what they had intended to say. Such physical nervous and stress responses can be overcome or at least reduced by identifying the causes of your fear and looking at ways to overcome them. Your own worst enemy is your inner critic who is always harsh so ensure that you are realistic in your expectations of how you will perform. Convince your mind through positive thoughts that you are confident about what you will be speaking about as you plan and prepare your presentation or speech.
Many people learn what they will say ‘by rote’ like an actor with a script. Learning ‘by rote’ can have pitfalls as if you forget one line you may create inner panic and thus stumble over your words and forget a great deal more. If interrupted or distracted you can be completely thrown off balance. Imagine, if you would, an actor whose next line is a response to another character’s words – the actor who is confident and ‘unflappable’ can often compensate for the other actor by integrating what the person should have said within their own line. The key to speeches or presentations is to ensure you know exactly what you are going to say and what comes next. A useful tool is to have key words that encompass each verbal paragraph you are going to be speaking about – such could easily be on a notepad rather than separate pieces of card. How many of us have been somewhat distracted within a presentation by a speaker shuffling a deck of key cards as if performing a magic trick? The additional downfall of such key cards is that you will be preoccupied with them and fail to make eye contact. Keep it simple as much of your message falls outside the words you are saying but rather the body language, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice.
Public speaking is always going to heighten one’s adrenalin which you could negatively believe is fear but why not view it positively as excitement? You are to be communicating something – something that you know about and so you are prepared already for questions. Ensure that this is the case. Do not aim for perfection but improvement each time. Make sure that you do thorough research on the topic you are presenting even if it is your own field. Why bother if it is in my field? A good reason is because very few of us know everything. Depending upon your presentation or speech it is certainly worth using the Internet in order to see both sides of any statements you are making. Play ‘devil’s advocate’ with yourself. What’s the upside and what’s the downside of that method or theory? Then you will be fully prepared for any questions.
Useful strategies for nervousness focus upon mental, physical and psychological techniques. Experimenting with a combination of all three can give you a wider ability to reduce fear and nerves. We all require different techniques to achieve a state of calm and in control. The key is to not give up or be daunted by a memory of a previously poor attempt – use where you went wrong in order to grow and improve. Try to ‘mingle’ with the people attending prior to giving your presentation or speech. The more amiable you are towards people face to face the more likely they are to respond to you when you are standing in front of them communicating your well-prepared information. Again, this works in your favour too as they are no longer strangers and you thus become more relaxed when delivering your speech.
The standard formula for a presentation is to inform the audience what you are going to talk about (often using a story that will make people laugh), tell them a few key points (with stories to illustrate the points) and then to recap what you have already said. Avoid cramming in too much information as people can only withhold a certain amount of knowledge received audibly. Also, in this day and age, beware of ‘Death by Powerpoint.’ For many presentations, this is now a very common tool. Think of the times you have been faced with a screen of words watching the back of the speaker’s head as he or she reads it? Not many of us can read and listen simultaneously and we often speed-read the screen feeling ‘put off’ by the speaker! As the speaker, you are not making eye contact with your ‘audience’ and are purely reading out loud as though those in the room are incapable of reading for themselves. Having said that, if you wish to use a Powerpoint then interest can be garnered through visual images that hint at the next thing you are to be speaking about. If you are talking about profit (for want of a better example) a cartoon image of cash (be it dollars, pounds or another currency) with a ‘red tick’ to denote success could work very well to draw in the audience – not to mention it could be a very useful prompt for yourself as to what you are going to be talking about next! If you want to include additional information (or to concisely summarise what you were speaking about) by all means have some prepared ‘handouts’ to distribute at the END of your presentation NOT the beginning as you will lose those who have read it all before you have even cleared your throat!
Think of the presentations you have attended. The most successful are those where the speaker talks to you and not at you. Be genuinely enthusiastic and interested about the subject. You will not be able to please everybody as this would be an irrational fear. Do not worry about a possible few in the room who do not appear to be enthralled but focus upon those you are pleasing and to do your best. To paraphrase Bruce Lee ‘low aim is the crime not failure.’ Most people do not mind if you stumble over your words a couple of times – in fact they probably do not even notice. Tell yourself how prepared you are, remind yourself that you know what you are talking about and you are going to succeed. Keep repeating affirmative thoughts to yourself. If you are fully prepared, relaxed and know your subject you will get the best results. Once you have accumulated successes in various public speaking roles your confidence will improve and your fears will be replaced by fearlessness.