It’s a fact, a known fact, that people hate standing in front of a crowd of strangers and speaking. Public speaking, for most, is a nightmare. In a survey done in 1973 by Bruskin Associates which compiled the list of “14 Worst Human Fears” public speaking ranked number one. Death, despite what you’ve been told by comedians, comes in at number 7, not number 2. In between 1 and 7 are heights, insects and bugs, financial problems, deep water and sickness. It’s interesting to note that the fears between numbers one and seven can clearly cause death. Falling from a great height, being bitten by a poisonous insect, deep water you can drown in and a bad sickness can lead to death. Even financial problems can conceivably lead to death. But public speaking? Sure, some people have been assassinated while public speaking but that’s pretty rare. So, it’s interesting to me that people fear public speaking more than they fear things that can actually kill them. People find it very frightening.
There are ways to try to overcome this fear, thousands of articles have been written about the subject, there are clubs like Toastmasters, set up to help people overcome their fears and have better speaking and leadership skills. You can spend thousands of dollars to become a better public speaker or you can spend thousands of dollars paying someone else to make the speech for you. Point is, if there is a public speaking engagement in your future, there are certainly places to turn to for help.
Recently I went to Toastmasters’ speech competition. People who have reached a certain level in their Toastmasters division came out to try their speaking skills in a competitive arena. It was, for the most part, uncomfortable, curious and, at times, rather jarring. These folks, some of whom had been in the club for several years, still stumbled, lost their words, wandered, looked at their feet and projected a feeling of discomfort that was palpable in the room. Watching these people speak I made some observations and formed the idea for this blog. The truth is at some point we all have to get up and say something in front of the group. It may be an introduction of yourself in a new office, it may be the yearly convention where the boss says you’re going to present or it may be something as simple as being asked to say a few words at a friend’s retirement. Now, you have a choice, you can say okay, I have to speak and do it and have done or you can worry, fret and drive yourself crazy for weeks or months until that you have to speak and then float away on a river of your own flop sweat. The second option, despite how awful it sounds, is usually the route most people choose. It’s a bad choice, I don’t recommend this choice and I can give you a few pointers to help you not make this terrible choice.
I have been a professional actor for over 35 years and though acting and public speaking are two very different animals, there is some crossover in the things I've learned as an actor that will help you be a better public speaker.
Know Your Material
As with acting, we have to learn our lines and the sooner you do that, the more solid you feel in the part. The same thing goes with public speaking, know your material. Learn your speech and get it down solid so that you can say it front to back, back to front, side to side. Learn about your subject matter so that you would feel confident about taking any part of your speech and expounding on it. I usually come into the first day of rehearsal with my lines solid. You don't want to worry about what you have to say when the show opens, that’s basic stuff, get it out of the way. If you know your speech solid, it’s one less thing to worry about. Most people worry that they’ll forget what to say. Don’t put yourself in that position, know your material.
Breathing is an automatic function of the human body. Breathing is controlled in the medulla and the pons goes on to help to smooth the respiration process. Point is, it’s automatic, you don’t even need to think about and yet, when people stand up to speak to a crowd, the first thing they usually do is stop breathing. The second thing they do is take these shallow, sharp breaths which just gets the adrenaline going and makes you more nervous because now you’re into panic mode. When you’re breathing properly, your shoulders shouldn't move. Your breath should drop way down into your belly and fill your entire body. Good, deep breaths will calm you and also support your voice. Good breathing is a serious key to speaking clearly and feeling in control of the situation. When practicing, lay on the floor, knees up, feet planted and place your hand gently on your belly. Breathe down deep and try to breathe into your hand. That’s where you breath should drop to. Deep into your belly. As you keep practicing, move from the floor to having your back against a wall. Stand with your hand in the same place and drop your breath down to your hand. Now, as you keep practicing, you can check in with your breath. Place your hand on your belly and make sure your breath is dropping way down. You should feel more calm breathing this way and you should notice that you’re not running out of breath mid-sentence.
Know What You Want
Public speaking is very active. You’re speaking to a group of people about something. Usually, something you want them to do. Think about your CTAs when you’re writing copy or designing a website. You’re wanting people to do something, you’re never just talking, you’re talking with purpose. Have a clear picture of what you’d like to have happen when your speech is done. Don’t be afraid to make it a fantasy, when I finish my speech I want everyone to stand up and run to the streets and shout my words to the skies. Why, because this is going to help you make your speech more active. It’s the difference between just saying words and getting done with the speech and touching people’s minds and hearts. Think of what you clearly want and go for that. It’s not a matter of actually achieving it, most likely people are not going to storm the Bastille due to your wedding toast but, they will feel more connected and more activated by your words if you speak actively.
You Have the Answer
There are a lot of old school tips for public speaking, one is to picture the audience in their underwear. I have never understood that tip. Not only is it bad enough that I have to speak in front of all these people, but they care so little about what I have to say, they didn’t even bother to put on clothes. And, frankly, there is something creepy about imagining strangers in their underwear. I get the theory, it’s supposed to make them seem less frightening but, that’s a lot of work and it’s also got nothing to do with your speech. I propose this instead, you have the answer. What you’re about to speak on is the answer. You have what every single person in that room is looking for, it’s going to improve their lives and … you GET to share it with them. You don’t have to, you’re not forced to, you get to tell all these people the answer to their deepest questions, their hardest problems. So, when you think about speaking, realize that what you’re saying is the answer. This puts you not in opposition to the audience, not making them inferior by putting them in their underwear and thus ashamed, you are one with the audience because you have exactly what they need and together, you’re going to leave the room happier people.
Take Your Time
Sometimes, when you hear someone who is not comfortable speak, you can almost hear the starting gun. It goes off and they start speaking, fast. They get a pace going which doesn’t allow the audience to really hear what the speaker is talking about, what they are hearing is “I’m almost done, almost done, almost at the bar, almost done.” In this case, you haven’t been able to communicate the great answer that you have because you've just rushed to get to the end. A rushed speech is not informative, it’s not interesting, it’s not entertaining, it is simply rushed. Take your time, allow your points to land, listen, are they responding to certain words, are they getting it? Are they hearing the answer to their problems that you have? If you rush it, if you make the speech just to get to the end, you’ve wasted your time and theirs. Slow, steady, connect.
Don’t Drop the Ball
I see this a lot. A nervous person steps up to make their speech, they take a deep breath, hold it for a second, let it go and then they start speaking. Big mistake. The deep breath is good, it calms you, it centers you but if you let it all out and then speak, you’ve dropped the ball. See, your speech, what you’re going to say to the audience, is the ball and you want to keep that ball in the air and buoyant. When you take that breath in and let it out, then you’re breathless, you have no air to support your words and so, you’re starting from a place where the ball is on the floor. So, you have to bend over and pick it up and get it engaged again. You need air under your words to keep that ball moving. Take that deep breath, let it out and then, take another breath and speak. Give your words a nice pillow of air to be supported on and to be carried to the audience on. Breath, support, don’t drop the ball before you even start.
Ignoring it Doesn’t Make it Go Away
You’ve heard about them, perhaps you’ve experienced them … butterflies. That feeling of having literally a thousand butterflies flitting about in your stomach. It’s a natural reaction, it’s our bodies telling us, we’re in fight-or-flight mode so, we’ve got you covered. The thing is, butterflies are a signal that the body is ready for action. The mistake here is trying to ignore them and hope they will go away. They won’t. Our bodies are pretty smart and it tells us things that we need to listen to. Trying to ignore the butterflies is ignoring a natural reaction which can be a gift. Instead of trying to make the butterflies go away, listen to them. What does the body do when it gets ready to fight or fly? Well, your senses heighten, your focus becomes sharper, your breathing gets deeper and you become ready for anything. A fight, an attack, a need to run far very quickly or … to make a speech in public. Don’t ignore the butterflies, pay attention to them, know they are actually helpful and accept them as part of being human. It’s better to accept and use these feelings than to expend energy trying to ignore them and appear “normal”. Butterflies are normal. No matter how many plays I do, I still get butterflies. To me, it means I still care about giving the audience my very best. I always say, the day the butterflies stop is the day I stop acting.
Plant Your Feet
Be careful about wandering aimlessly. When I first started acting I had a great teacher, Ted Kazanoff, say to me once; “You’re wandering around like Henry Fonda without Oklahoma.” it confused me and amused my classmates. Later I understood that he meant I was moving for no reason, I was just pointlessly meandering from spot to spot. Stillness can be compelling. Watch the film, The Silence of the Lambs and notice how little Anthony Hopkins, as Hannibal Lecter, moves. He commands respect and fear by being very, very still. But, he’s still present and fluid. Being still is different from being rigid. Stillness is under your control. It comes from a combination of the above points, you know your material, you have the answers, you’re breathing, you’re keeping the ball in the air and you’re taking your time. Imagine sitting at a train station, the train unloads and everyone is rushing. It’s familiar, you can imagine where they’re all rushing to, what they have to get done. Now, imagine one person in that rushing crowd who has nowhere to be, is in no rush and is walking very slowly. His pace in comparison to the rest of the rushing, predictable crowd, makes him stand out. You focus on him because he's different, slower, he has his own agenda. Plant yourself when you start to speak. Own the bit of ground you’re standing own and feel your legs, like tree roots, going deep into the ground and giving you balance and weight and purpose, This will translate into making you more compelling to watch. Decide when you move and move with purpose. Move to connect with one person in the audience or to a section of the audience to make sure they are getting the answer you’ve come to give them. Don’t wander just because you think you’re supposed to move, plant and then, move with purpose.
When It’s Done, It’s Done
I used to have this problem when I first started acting, every audition I went on I’d come out and replay it all day, sometimes for three or four days and just see all the mistakes I made or all the things I should have done. It made me anxious and, worse, those negative thoughts would stay with me for the next audition. I didn’t realize it until someone pointed it out. Instead of being present for the audition, my head was filled with now don’t do what you did last time or don’t forget to do what you should have done last time. I was deep in my head and that is death for an actor. So now, when the audition is done, it’s done. The result is out of my hands. I did my homework, I prepared for the audition, I did all I could do and now, I was done. Once your speech is done, it’s done. You cannot get it back, you cannot change it, you did it and it’s now in the past. Believe me, when you go to make another speech, all the little things you did well or you need to improve on will be there in your kinesthetic memory, there’s no need to dwell, just be present.
Even the most experienced public speakers still get nervous, still have worries, still have fears but, experience has shown them that, even if they bomb, as we sometimes do they didn’t die. They survived and lived to make another speech another day. The fear is going to be there, don't waste time and energy trying to get rid of it or ignore it, accept it and make peace with it. I shared these tips because they work for me. Again, they aren’t designed to remove all nervousness, they’re designed to help you be in control of your nerves and give you simple, clear things to focus on to help you feel more comfortable, more successful at public speaking.