by Randall P. Whatley
"All the great speakers were bad speakers at first." - Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1860
You are already a great speaker. You give great presentations every day.
Think about how often you successfully communicate your ideas to loved ones, co-workers, or acquaintances. You make a simple point. You choose language that they understand and to which they can relate. You answer their objections satisfactorily. You close with them agreeing to do something you want them to do. You just employed the great elements of a successful speech.
Then you are asked to speak to 15 people about a subject you know something about. (Why else would you be asked to speak?) You become scared to death. You have a totally different mindset about "public speaking" than you do about "daily conversations." Why? You’re scared because you think you don’t know how to communicate. You think you have nothing important to say. You think you don’t know the correct way to phrase your thoughts. You think the audience will disagree with you. You think the audience will dislike both your ideas and you personally. You don’t think you can persuade them.
You plod on, prepare your speech, rise to deliver it and all of a sudden, you experience one or more of the following "stage fright" symptoms.
Your heart is beating so fast and loud that you’re sure everyone in the room hearsyour heart pounding. Relax. Only you can hear your heartbeat. It’s beating faster than usual because adrenaline and other chemicals are increasing your heart rate. Breathe slowly and deeply. Concentrate on your speech. Focus on someone in the audience you are comfortable with for a few moments. You heart rate will slow once you become immersed in your presentation.
You’re embarrassed because one of your legs or hands is trembling. Everyone who sees it knows how scared you are. You feel like such a coward. Relax. Take several, slow, deep breaths. Contract and then relax the shaking muscle. Again, adrenaline and other chemicals have supplied more energy that your body needs, and irregular breathing has disrupted your blood circulation.
Shift your weight on your feet to stop your leg from shaking. Use large hand gestures that move your hands and arms. Connect and press together your index finger and thumb on the trembling hand while relaxing your other fingers. Hold the connected finger together for ten seconds and them relax your hand. Repeat this if necessary. Your breathing and tension/relaxation exercises will stop the trembling.
You begin speaking and your voice shakes or cracks. Your voice sounds so weak and you’re embarrassed. How can you continue? What should you do? This problem is simply caused by irregular breathing. You can easily eliminate a shaking or cracking voice by slowing your speaking rate and gaining control of your breathing rate. Focus on someone comforting in the audience. Intentionally slow your speech, inhale, and lower the pitch of your voice as you continue.
Your mouth feels like it’s full of cotton. Your lips stick together and slur your speech. You’re afraid that the audience won’t understand you because of the slurring. It’s the old adrenaline problem again! The adrenaline is pulling moisture from your mouth. If you can take a drink of water, stop and do so. Hold it in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. Pause for a few seconds and relax. Breathe to relax. If you cannot take a drink, pause or stop to collect saliva in your mouth and hold it there for a few moments before swallowing. To diminish the chance of this happening, chew gum or use a mint before speaking.
Your forehead and upper lip feel moist. You’re very self-conscious of this and feel growing embarrassment. Your perspiration is probably caused by your rapid heart rate that raises your body temperature. Then again, maybe it’s just warm in the room. Try to ignore it as much as possible. Wipe your upper lip and forehead briskly with a handkerchief, and then continue your speech.
Your face and neck look like you’re coming down with the measles! It’s all red and you know people can see that you’re scared. These red splotches are caused by irregular blood flow to the outer layers of your skin by adrenaline. This mostly happens to women. There’s usually no way to stop it once it starts other than to relax in order to slow the adrenaline rush.
Why don’t these speaking problems occur when you’re talking to loved ones, co-workers, or acquaintances? They don’t usually occur because you’re relaxed when you speak to people with whom you are familiar under comfortable circumstances. More than anything else, relaxation is the key to delivering great presentations to groups. Delivering presentations in conversational tones is one of the easiest ways to force yourself to relax.
You can be a great speaker. You give great presentations every day. Adopt the same mindset when you’re speaking to a group that you have when you’re holding a regular conversation. These simple tips will enable you to be a great public speaker.
Randall P. Whatley is president of Cypress Media Group, an advertising, public relations, and training firm. Cypress Media Group provides training primarily related to business and technical writing, presentation skills, and media relations. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.