CAREER ADVANCEMENT / MAR. 14, 2014
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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Public Speaking

In my past cruise ship job, I had the privilege of talking on a microphone for at least thirty minutes each week. I went from dreading it to loving it. It became the highlight of my week and just about the biggest thrill I could imagine. My presentation was on art history and it was generally given to an audience of twenty plus people. The more I did it, the more I realized that public speaking is just about the most fun I’ve had in years.

I wasn’t always like that. For a long while I hated talking to crowds, and by crowds I mean anything involving more than one other person. I feared it, and I thought it didn’t suit my personality at all. I’m introverted and fairly shy (I was, in my last life, an armadillo), so speaking in front of audiences didn’t exactly fit in with my vision of myself. But how did I go from a terribly shy person deathly afraid of speaking in small groups to someone happily crowing to audiences five times that? Well, in an effort to overcome my anxious proclivities, I signed up for Toastmasters, the popular public speaking support group. I only went to a few meetings, and I never actually gave a speech. But I did present an impromptu story about one of my high school track meets. And that single moment of just talking about my life to a room full of strangers planted some realizations about public speaking that I explored on the ship.

The first thing I realized is that if you’re talking about something that you find funny, or important, or informative, then the only thing holding you back from giving a good talk is your own anxiety. If you erase that, your passion can enthrall listeners.

The second thing I began to realize was that no one listening wants you to fail, choke up, and crash. This realization was the single most important part of my learning experience. My anxiety, my fear, my pattering heart, these all began to fade as I realized the nature of most audiences. And that nature is that audiences are receptive. Open, encouraging, and willing. Even if they were forced to come, they still want their attention captured, their emotions stoked, and their imaginations unleashed. They all want their attention diverted from their own thoughts and memories to what you’re exuding. No one wants to be bored and no one wants to have a bad time.

Another thing I realized was that, when performing any sort of public speaking, the chances of you falling down on your face or physically injuring yourself are actually quite low.

After that revelation, I started to think of it as a game. It’s a game whose goal is emotional connection. Remember half the battle is already won: these people have gathered to listen. But there is the chance you’ll lose them. So, when you’re talking, scan the room and look at people again and again until you are certain that you’ve captured their attention. When you look an audience member in the eyes it’s like you just invited them into your home. They’re suddenly with you, in on the joke, welcome, and they become personally invested. You’re not a TV presenter anymore. You’re a friend sharing words. So look a person in the eyes until you’re certain that your words have sunk in and then move onto the next.

When you see someone looking away from you, ignoring you, twiddling their fingers…feel a surge of self righteous anger. How dare they turn from the information you’re giving? If they aren’t responding to your eyes, use your next weapon. Pop your voice. Raise it. Put incredible stress on a single word. And pause. Everyone’s head will snap to. Everyone will feel the tension you just put into the room, and everyone will be waiting to hear what you just said. You just promised you were going to say something important. And now, everyone wants to hear what it is.

So sing it. Sing whatever you have to say and make your voice fly up and down the scales, and everyone will be enthralled by the honey of your tone. Your voice will become an entirely separate part of your speech, and it will convey a richness of emotion that your words themselves can’t bring across.

Practice is also important. I can’t sing. But I realized that listening to my recorded speaking voice helped me learn the melodies I naturally fall into whenever I talk.  

So when I was practicing, I didn’t do a dry sort of rote repetition of words and phrases. Throw that into the garbage.

Instead, I made my presentation a story and I practiced its emotional valleys and summits. Key take away points were areas of climax and sudden intensity, of exuberant movement, while ‘plot devices’ and details became valleys of quiet, areas of reflection for both you and the audience. This sort of range creates a natural drama, a wildness that feels unpredictable and fascinating.

Don’t be afraid of improvising, either in your practice or in your actual presentation.
To get comfortable with this, practice saying your story again and again in different ways. Use different inflections at different points until you feel you’ve made a range of them. And practice just speaking out loud. Eventually, you’re never fumbling for words, or trying to figure out what to say. Your thoughts just rather automatically ring out, with a sure steadiness that comes from repetition.

All of these different ways to think of public speaking allowed me to become far more animated, emotional, and excited whenever I spoke to groups. My presentations went from thirty minutes to a full hour, and that was mainly because I didn’t want to give up the mike. As far as the audience goes, they would applaud and stick around, and some people would come up to me afterward to talk more and compliment me. But the most important thing was that I ended up having a blast each time. And that I think is the key to effective public speaking.

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