They say that one of the top fears of adults is public speaking. I wonder if that will continue to be the case as we have generations of young adults that are right at home having a public conversation on their cell phone, posting intimate details on various public social media sites, and telling the story of their lives in 140 characters. I suppose that type of public dialogue is different than delivering a “speech” but both expose your private fears and sometimes quirks in your personality to a group of people that you may not have met. I suppose the fear of public speaking produces the same hollow feeling in your stomach as hitting send on an email that went somewhere you never meant it to go, or realizing your witty post on your friend’s status was viewable by your company’s CEO. Time will tell what anxieties and fears transpire in this new open and transparent world we live in.
I remember my first “public” speech quite vividly. It wasn’t planned and it was the only spontaneous speech I’ve ever given. I was in the sixth grade and my more extroverted older sister had given me a chain letter. The letter promised many benefits if you followed its instructions and just as many calamities if you ignored it or failed to pass it along. The instructions included snorting like a pig, and other adolescent behaviors. Being the small shy bookworm, I waited until the lights in the classroom went down and the science film was being shown to work down the list. At the end of the film, my teacher turned on the lights, walked up to my desk and snatched the letter out of my hands. He proceeded to read the letter aloud to the rest of the class. I have no idea how much of that letter he read, but I sprung out of my seat, and said in the loudest voice I could muster (I am sure I was yelling), “I hate you, Mr. Gady!” I could hear the classroom gasp and I was summarily sent to the principal’s office. The one thing I accomplished, I got my audience’s attention.
From time to time, as part of my role as an executive I am asked to speak or address a group of 50 to 100 people. Ideally, I have adequate time to prepare my material, and if I know at least half to two-thirds of the people in the room, I can find a place of calm and comfort in order to deliver my message. The more casual the atmosphere, the better I am. But in the last couple of years, the stakes have gotten higher. I work for a performing arts organization and the number of creative and talented individuals that can embrace and really rock the public speaking arena are plentiful. In my executive role, it is expected that I will also participate. My fear of public speaking has been heightened from the mere fact that I more than often have to follow a great orator, performer, entertainer with my heartfelt, but trembling words. As I’ve wrestled with that reality, I’ve developed a few tips that keep the butterflies at bay and allow the words to tumble out clearly and usually with effect:
1. “Speak slowly, the room echoes.” This was a piece of advice that was given me just before I climbed the steps in a large standing-room-only cathedral at my former boss’s memorial service to deliver a biblical reading. The advice was given by a supreme orator who had spent many an hour in this environment. Over the years, this phrase has reminded me, whether it is in everyday life or when giving a speech, to remember to take my time, to listen, and not fill the space up with too many words too fast. In life or on the stage, the space in between the words is as important as the words themselves.
2. Speak from a place of passion. We have all sat through droning power point presentations whose only redeeming element is when the technology goes awry and tests the presenter’s extemporaneous skills. Is there anything in your prepared remarks that gives your audience an idea of what you actually care about? Are you speaking from a place of conviction and are you doing so honestly? No matter what your delivery skills are, people respond to authentic and real experiences. Cardboard Ken and Malibu Barbie never made a memorable speech that I know of.
3. If you can’t speak the part, look the part. I had to deliver an honorarium speech at a gala event for someone who was larger than life, a gifted speaker and lecturer. Not only would I be on the stage, but projected on one of those god-awful large screens donning the ballroom floor. I worked diligently on my speech focusing on both the wit and the words. But I decided that I would take advantage of having trained hard for a marathon and wear a dress that was inches shorter than what I customarily would choose for myself. The fear of exposing that much leg overcame my fear of speaking. So wear that Italian suit, purchase a new tie, buy yourself those designer shoes, and use the power of camouflage and distraction to pull you through the evening.
4. Leave the jokes to the comedians. Unless you made your way through college by moonlighting on the stand-up circuit, leave the jokes to the professionals. There is nothing worse than delivering a punch line to a wave of deafening silence, or even worse offending a portion of your audience who may not share your unique sense of humor. If you want to get the crowd’s attention rely on #2 or #3. If your passion and truthful revelation doesn’t get their attention; perhaps your shapely legs or Italian suit will distract them enough to get to #5.
5. Be gracious and benevolent. Regardless of your topic, remember you can’t say thank you often enough. Thank your hosts, thank your audience, thank the people that inspired you, and say it with gratitude and sincerity. Give credit where credit is due and remember, at the end of the day, let the message be the center of attention.
I feel so much better. Now back to writing that speech.