“In front of PEOPLE?”
“Just me?, You go to…”
“I’m not any good at that…I’d be too nervous!”
The thought of public speaking makes people begin doubting their ability to do so even though it may seem like fun. Being asked to speak in public makes people immediately start throwing up barriers as to why they can’t do it. But, from personal experience, I know ANYONE can learn to be a more effective, comfortable, persuasive and inspiring public speaker.
Typical Barriers to Effective Public Speaking
Presentation skill development is a combination of two components: content and delivery. Content is the preparation of a quality, concise, yet thorough delivery of information or skill for the knowledge or development of an audience. The delivery is the actual public speaking aspect, which allows you to convey quality information. In the public speaking arena two sub-areas must be considered: the voice quality and utilizing the natural movement or “beat” of the body.
This article will focus on the public speaking aspect of presentation and skill development. Most people do not know or understand the wonderful instrument that is present within their voice and body, and, thus, do not utilize this instrument to its fullest capacity. We get tangled up in what to do with our hands and where to place our feet and whether to stand or sit or move or clutch the podium. As we concentrate on what we are doing, we do not pay attention to what we are saying and then our voice quality suffers, as does the information being delivered.
There are three components that must be considered when planning effective public speaking:
1. Your task as a speaker is to share information, to persuade the audience, or to enlighten the audience.
2. Your responsibility to the audience is to capture their attention and to hold it!!
3. Your success is determined: by your preparation and by your enthusiasm.
The equation, task + responsibility = success, seems simple but one factor consistently gets in our way when speaking: barriers. Our barriers come in three forms: personal, nervousness and known.
Personal barriers include statements like those at the beginning of this article. Self-doubt (including not feeling knowledgeable on a subject, the intimidation of having so many people watching you, and the thoughts that only talented folks can effectively speak) serves to prevent most people from becoming better speakers. When a person is only focused on himself or herself, their subject or not missing any points then this person is allowing personal barriers to impact their ability in speaking. Wondering how a certain outfit looks on you, being concerned about having a bad hair day, consciousness about your weight, your voice, or some other quirk about your persona or physical being, are all levels of interfering personal barriers. When personal barriers hinder you from speaking your speech, your presentation and, literally, your voice will be monotone and boring. You must feel comfortable with yourself and the body you inhabit so that you can be other focused as a speaker. Thus, the core task as a speaker is to know that you are up-front for a specific reason – it is all about the audiences’ edification and needs.
The day I do not feel the slightest nervousness as a public speaker, I want to stop speaking because that means I have become too complacent in my ability, my subject, or worst of all, with my audience. A certain level of nervousness is natural and beneficial as a speaker, because it keeps you alive to your audience. But when nervousness has you stammering from a dry mouth, has you jingling your keys in your pocket, or has you apologizing for a mistake only you know about, then nervousness becomes a barrier. This barrier will cause your speech, your presentation or you to ramble and not make specific points, have you digress from your subject and make you appear confused and a non-dynamic speaker. It is your responsibility to capture and keep the attention of your audience but this is hard when your nervousness barriers are drawing attention away from your words and on to your distracting behaviors or habits.
The final step of success as a speaker is our Known Barriers that are when we turn our personal and nervousness barriers into controlled, known habits by learning specific skills or tricks to combat our other two barriers. Once you can make your barriers known you are on your way to becoming a dynamic speaker. The ability to be comfortable with yourself – at least while you are speaking – and controlling nervousness makes you a success as a public speaker to both yourself and to your audience. As you reach this point of complete other-centeredness you are able to see something from another’s’ perspective and can begin building your own style and charisma as a speaker and presenter.
We all have a “telephone voice”: that perfect pitch, intonation, articulation and volume that also matches our gender, stature, personality and professionalism. This quality voice must match the natural beat and rhythm of our bodies. Our bodies and voice are natural instruments that must be honed, tuned and exercised to maintain optimum performance. Below is a developing scale for public speaking skill development. The scale takes into consideration a person’s natural ability and learned skills as a speaker and lists objectives for controlling barriers and converting barriers to known barriers.
Controlling Personal Barriers
Natural Ability/Talent = Comfortable Speaker
comfort level interacting with people
comfort with voice quality
Controlling Nervousness Barriers
Natural Ability/Talent + Learned Skill = Captivating Speaker
intentional attention to voice quality
creating a comfortable environment
intentional observations of group dynamics
awareness of body nervousness barriers
intentional education of expert information
developing/understanding various roles
Going with the Flow – Known Barriers
Knowing/Utilizing Style = Dynamic Speaker/Presenter
creating a style
“thinking on your feet”
“Feelin” the “Lovin”
“Being in the Moment”
Going with the flow is the last 20% of effective speaking and people in this range of the scale are the dynamic speakers you know.
Effective Public Speaking: Common Barriers and Typical Solutions
Up to this point I have tried to express some typical reasons behind ineffective speaking and what makes a person avoid such a task. Hopefully, I have also provided a means so you can begin to break down your own barriers. However, the above is theory, in conclusion I will attempt to provide some common barriers and typical solutions; please realize that the scenarios and solutions presented are generic and may not address particular issues you have with public speaking.
The first defense against nervousness is adequate preparation for your body and your material. Before every speaking engagement you must develop an anti-nervousness routine to perform. The routine should serve to relax your muscles, especially those around your throat, and provide appropriate breathing. Most people breathe shallowly and only from the chest, to have maximum speaking power you must train yourself to breath from your diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle located right below your rib cage and above your stomach. By having the full-breath of both your diaphragm and chest you will fully utilize your voice.
You must spend time doing research to feel competent about your knowledge of the material you present. Whether there are others in the audience who know your information or even more about your information than you is irrelevant. No one knows the information from your experience or perspective and thus, why you are the speaker at the moment. While preparing your material remember the simple acronym: KISS – Keep It Simple Silly! It is impossible to give an audience all of the information that they need. When presenting or speaking only attempt to give your audience 20% or less of the information you know. Part of your 20% should be to entice audience members to do their own additional research or questioning of the material. If you are unaware of an answer to a specific question, be honest with your audience and offer assistance in finding an answer. Always remember, you are the expert who has been asked to speak…. you can only give what you know.
Whatever you do, be YOURSELF. You may watch other speakers and pick up tips, but never mimic another speaker. Many times when we are trying to be a “speaker” instead of being ourselves speaking, we turn to crutches. To avoid these habits we must remain true to ourselves, whether speaking to one person, fifty, or two hundred. If you are someone who “talks with your hands”, then do so; if you like to move then step out from behind the podium; if you’re funny then be funny but avoid telling jokes. Speaking should eventually become like storytelling. A good way to practice is reading, animatedly, a children’s’ story.
Preparation: To Note or Not to Note
Whether you write out verbatim what you will say, list objectives to be covered, or speak extemporaneously, is not as important as not allowing your mechanism to get in the way of your performance. When speaking or presenting I use an outline to focus and always have items that can be deleted because of time restraints or audience interest. You must be able to reach a point of “reading your audience” and deciding whether you stay with your plan or alter. Remember, however, that this is the last 20% in the scale development discussed above and will take time to reach this point. In the meantime, relax, breathe and know that the only person who will ever know you’ve made a mistake in speaking is you – unless you tell them.
Violinist or Fiddler?
Both of these musicians use the same basic instrument but our perceptions of these instruments and the musicians are very different. Whether as a public speaker you are a fiddler or violinist does not always matter as long as the audience gets the information you were asked or promised to deliver. But if you have a preference, you can make it happen.
A Final Point
In my opinion this final point is the most important in your public speaking journey: sometimes you’ll be loved and sometimes you won’t (feelin the lovin!). And there are many circumstances that play into your success as a public speaker and development into a dynamic speaker, many of which may be outside your control. Such things as the environment being too hot or too cool, technical problems, a rowdy audience, or an audience member or event planner just having a bad day – will all impact the experience the audience has, but may have nothing to do with you as a speaker. Identify the concerns, fix what you can, continue to work on yourself and go try again.
Public speaking is a skill that takes intentionality and commitment to improve your comfort level to create a style that will allow you to be a dynamic speaker. It is a skill development that can be mastered through your own readings and practice or you can hire a coach to direct your progression. Either route you take, always videotape yourself speaking so you can analyze the comfort level of your body and become more at ease in your own skin. The ability to critique yourself on videotape will become key in developing your public speaking skills.
Submitted by John D. Stafford, Director of Residence Life, The College of New Jersey