Statistically, public speaking ranks higher in stress terms than almost any other activity. Quite what the parameters were, for research that produced this startling fact, am not sure. Find it hard to believe addressing an audience could cause more angst than say, a visit to a man in a mask who runs out of the room whilst zapping you with x-rays before returning to do things with a needle and drill.
However, there seems little doubt that whilst there are those who like nothing better than a captive audience, the reactions of many of the rest of us range from it being a minor chore to a knee-knocking, sweaty palmed endurance test. So in spirit of helpfulness, let’s look at a few things that might come to your aid.
Of course before you stand up and give it, you have to write the wretched thing and if at this very moment you’re sitting in front of a blank screen, fingers poised you’ll be aware that this is often easier in theory than it proves in practice.
Obviously there are always horses for courses. What goes down a treat from the Best Man at a wedding won’t be quite as appropriate as a business conference Keynote Speech. There are though some general rules which apply equally as well to one as to the other:
- Keep it as short as you reasonably can. You may well have put blood, sweat, tears and the best years of your life into composing the thing, but shorter is still always better.
- Never start your speech with ‘A’ is for . . . this induces a dreadful sense of foreboding in your audience who immediately see where you’re going with this and can promptly lose the will to live, let alone listen.
- Do try and start your speech with a small joke, bearing in mind all the while that you’re not on the Edinburgh Fringe, so don’t need to have them rolling in the aisles. And when I say a small joke I mean it – there’s a time for shaggy dog tales and this isn’t it.
- If you’re lucky enough to get a laugh, savour it. Let people chuckle before you hurtle onwards and upwards. Which brings us to another important point . . .
- Speak slowly. Slowly and clearly. And do remember, if you gabble, you force yourself to breathe quicker. This results in a lot of swift inhaling in order to remain standing and although an indrawn breath is normally no problem, up close and personal to a microphone, it can sound truly startling.
Don’t forget body language is just as important as anything you’re saying. Raised shoulders are a sign of tension. Not a good look. It’s a fact, when people are watching you, many of them will unconsciously mimic your movements. Bearing in mind most of us aren’t swan-necked at the best of times, think how a roomful of ears on shoulders is going to look. Do everyone a favour, shake those shoulders down.
If you’re nervous, don’t hold any notes. Place them securely on the table in front of you. The sight of a shivering sheaf of papers will unnerve your audience. Even if you’re not a nervous speaker, your body will still probably react to the situation by shooting adrenaline into your system. This puts you into fight or flight mode – a basic physical reaction undeniably handy back in the ice-age, snout to snout with a sabre tooth. Possibly not quite so essential when addressing a not unduly hostile crowd.
So there you are, awash with adrenaline and as you’re not planning to fight or run (hopefully), all you can do is accept your body’s only trying to help. You might find it useful to think of this bodily reaction as similar to your kids doing the washing up – well-intentioned but ultimately more trouble than it’s worth. An adrenaline rush usually however gives you a dry mouth. So have a glass of water to hand. Panellists, musicians, actors, indeed anyone who has to perform in public is subject to exactly the same physiological reactions, so be reassured, you’re probably feeling no better or worse than a contingent from the Royal Shakespeare Company.
A glass of wine may help relax you prior to speaking but take into account your own limitations. Sliding gently under the table, five minutes before you’re due on, isn’t going to do anyone any good. Finally, don’t forget to include everybody as you speak. Look up, make eye contact, turn your body slightly to face people. And smile, smile, smile. Most people are instinctively polite, they’ll smile back and you’ll all feel more cheerful even if your speech is truly dreadful.
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