A Survival Guide to Public Speaking

Article excerpt

A Survival Guide to Public Speaking

For many people, public speaking is a fate worse than death.

That's not just talk. Public speaking is the number-one fear among Americans, according to communications consultant Gary Cosnett. That has been the result of studies done on the U.S. population as a whole, on research done with college students, and even in a study of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, says Cosnett.

Death is only the sixth most common fear.

So how do you stop the trembling in your knees and the quavering in your voice? What if your mind goes blank at the lectern and you forget everything you were going to say?

For a trainer, feeling comfortable speaking in front of a group is all-important. In addition, you may be asked to coach others in your organization to improve their own presentation skills.

Here is some advice from four oral-communications experts on how to prepare for your next speaking engagement, whether it's a training seminar for 12 or a keynote address for 1,200.

A study by AT&T and Stanford University found that the number-one predictor of success and upward mobility is how much you enjoy public speaking and how effective you are at it.

But I'd guess that 85 percent of the population suffers in some degree from fear of public speaking. In some cases, it is immobilizing. In other cases, it just causes undue anxiety and concern.

You may be one of the few people who say, "Well, I've never had any concern about public speaking." Even so, there's usually one configuration or another that is going to cause you a lot of anxiety - a larger group than you're used to speaking to, for example, or maybe a smaller, more intimate one. When it comes and you have no tools to deal with it, you're out of luck; you may come unglued.

I've done a lot of reading on public speaking, and the suggestions for controlling anxiety range from the helpful to the ludicrous to the bizarre. Some books say, "Don't put your hands in your pockets." Others say, "Put your hands in your pockets." You can spend so much time trying the remember the rules of how to do it that you forget what you're there for.

The only rule I suggest is to have a conversation with the audience. That way, you're going to be comfortable and effective, whether you stand up or sit down, and whether you put your hands in your pockets or not. Whatever's comfortable for you is going to make the audience comfortable, and that's going to make your presentation effective.

You're really going to engage the audience when they see you as a human being communicating with human beings. When you can do that - when you're freed up enough to do that - you're an engaging speaker.

Cosnett's recommendations

1 Set realistic goals. People tend to think of speaking in terms of all or nothing: you're going to be successful or you're going to fail.

You may set out with the unexamined goal of engaging 100 percent of the audience 100 percent of the time. Anyone who's had any speaking experience knows that that's impossible, but many people still expect it.

Have reasonable expectations; for example, "I can engage half of this group," or "I can engage 65 percent of this group." Set that 50 percent or 65 percent as a success mark. Then, when you notice during your speech that some of the people are losing interest, it won't unnerve you. You will be successful by your own terms, which will make you feel more comfortable. That will tend to draw more people in, as opposed to having them drop off.

When I started teaching, I had 125 sociology students whose attitude was, "Go ahead and teach me sociology; I dare you." I thought that I would be a failure unless I got 123 of those people engaged at the outset every day. That became tougher and tougher to do. Then I realized that even on my best days, I might get only 90 people of that group really actively interested, may be only 75. …