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COMMUNICATION: Public Speaking: Our #1 Fear

mikeharringtonwebsitePublic speaking – it’s not always easy, nor glamorous, and it often causes us to have heart palpitations.  However, it is something that we all find ourselves having to do at some point in our lives, whether for work, education, or as parents.  And if you were as foolish as I was to sign up for a public speaking course in college, then you realized your fear sooner than most.
I grew up in a family where both my parents had worked at the local radio station. So it wasn’t by accident that I decided to follow in my parents’ footsteps by enrolling in the communications program when I went away to college. However, you should know that I was the only kid in my third grade class that wouldn’t say his name over the radio when my own father asked me to do so during a class field trip to the radio station.

To this day I have no idea why I thought speaking in public for a living would be cool, and even though I suffered from severe nervousness, something about it gave me a thrill. It really wasn’t until I almost failed my freshman public speaking course, that I knew I was in for a long four years.

In the end, I made it through my four years, and in fact excelled in the public speaking arena.  I found myself managing my college radio station; I became the president of the student body and played an active role, as on-air talent, in both the college radio and television stations.

Michael town forumSo the question remains, what was it that caused a change in me? How did I go from someone who was petrified to say my name over the air, to training a group of 30+ managers? Below are ten insights into what I believe were the defining factors in my transformation.

1. Commitment – When I finally decided to go to school for Mass Communication, I committed myself to learning how to speak in public.  If you want to make it to the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to be committed to getting there.  There is no other alternative.

2. Be Proactive – Constantly put yourself in situations that require you to present publicly.  I don’t care if it’s volunteering to a second grade class during story-telling time. Get yourself in front of people.

3. Don’t Memorize – Memorizing causes you to focus on individual words. Instead focus on the overall conversation. After all, isn’t that what a good presenter does – converse.  Learn to ‘tell a story.’  Align your talk or presentation as a storyline in your mind, just as if you were going to tell your friends this crazy story about what happened this past weekend.

4. Save the Frosting Till the End – Don’t worry about being entertaining, at least not until you’ve got a handle on your content. Learn your content, get comfortable with it, and then once you know it front and back, think about ways to spice up your presentation, maybe by using a crazy statistic or video. I would recommend staying away from ‘flashy’ and focus on ‘classy.’

5. Practice Out Loud – I used to have to read the news over the air and I would find myself reading the newspaper out loud. So start reading out loud, a newspaper or book, maybe that dreaded manual to your dishwasher. Anything to get you comfortable with hearing your own voice.  Also, if there is someone who you specifically enjoy watching present, begin mimicking those things that he/she does. I used to watch the evening news and re-speak the phrase or sentence that I thought was clutch (millennial slang for cool).  That is how I began to build my pronunciation and enunciation skills.

6. Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew – Start small and work your way up.  Look for ways to give a 3-5 minute briefing and then work your way up to a 15-20 minute presentation.  My first real job was at that radio station my parents worked at and I remember the person training me saying, ‘Now if you want to read the weather once an hour, feel free, but you don’t have to.’  I worked there a few weeks before I ever turned on the mic, but by the time I left people  were getting their weather every 15 minutes.

7. Practice – Now I know this is something we all dread, but it works. Did you know we can get rid of 70 percent of our nervousness just by make sure we’re well prepared, and that doesn’t mean practicing in your head.  Nor does it always has to be a formal practice session.  When I’m delivering a concept at an upcoming training I try to find different informal conversations where I can talk through the content with someone out loud. They don’t know I’m doing it; I just weave it into the conversation.  Unfortunately though, this does not take the place of good old-fashioned practice. For me it means standing at my kitchen counter and presenting to my refrigerator. I always say “Don’t let your public presentation be the first time you’ve heard those words come out of your mouth.”

8. Warm the Room – I remember this time in college when I was emceeing an event on campus, which I did on a regular basis and the organizer asked me to ‘warm the room.’ So I got off the stage and began rubbing the shoulders of the people in the audience as if to warm them up.  It was funny at the time, but it’s something I remember to this day. Whenever I’m giving a presentation I don’t appear from behind a curtain and present. Instead, I greet people as they come in, learn a little bit about them and have a general conversation – in essence I’m warming the room. What that means for me is that I’m no longer presenting to a room of blank faces; I’ve met a number of these people and know a little bit about them, eliminating some of the opening awkwardness.

9. Use Your Audience
– Whoever came up with the idea that presenting was the act of speaking while others listened, was a fool.  People don’t like to be spoken to, it’s boring. Find ways to allow your audience to participate in the presentation, plus it will give you a break.  I present for seven hours straight sometimes, and if I thought I was going to need to entertain for seven hours I would drop dead. Instead, I encourage discussion, ask questions and look for people to share their experiences about the topic at hand.  In the end, I probably only present for 30 minutes out of every hour.

10. Get Feedback – We all hate it, but you have to be willing to constantly receive feedback. It’s the only way you’ll get better. So whether you’re watching a video of your presentation (which I hate), or you’re soliciting feedback from a friend, do whatever it takes to hone your skills.  Everyone knows that dramatic pauses can add emphasis; however, it is something that I frequently overlook. I recently received feedback from a friend that I’m ‘quick’ in my presenting and that if I let the pauses fall where they should, I could be more effective. I hated hearing the feedback, but that doesn’t mean I won’t use it to get better.

In the end, if you want to be good at speaking in public it must become a way of life. Don’t think you can do it once a month or twice a year and be good at it. It takes constant consideration and regular practice. Oh, and one more tip, forget trying to picture the audience naked; I have a feeling that suggestion was thought up by someone like Howard Stern.  Just keep putting yourself out there, and you will begin to welcome the adrenaline rush that comes with knowing that you were just like Tom Brokaw (well at least that’s how it felt to me).

If you liked this, you may want to read these:

Deb’s Top 10 Tips for Effective Communication

What’s Your Body Saying To Others?

  • This posting gave me a lot to think about. As I plan on working in higher education, being comfortable speaking in front of people is going to be extremely important. This post was easy to read and to relate to, and I thank you for sharing your experiences. I will definitely be using these tips in the future.

  • I really love this blog; it is my favorite of all you have done. As I mentioned to you in a personal email, it has such a great tone and is really makes it feel as if we are having a conversation. For me, as a retired teacher and someone who just likes to talk, public speaking is not a challenge at all, but nearly all of my friends really panic at the mere thought of having to share their thoughts with a group. At any rate, I loved this blog and am passing it on to several others.

  • That is a great opportunity. I tell students in my public speaking coursess that it is all about confidence. How do you build confidence? Practice, practice, practice. That’s really all there is to it. The more you speak in front of groups the more comfortable you will become and your comfort translates directly to the comfort of your audience.

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