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Glossophobia is the world’s most common phobia. Around 75% of people are either very nervous or terrified of public speaking. Yet, almost everyone has to speak in public sometimes. Here are some of the most effective techniques to chill at your curtain raiser.
More than spiders or snakes, people are terrified of public speaking. Three-quarters of the population have their anxiety triggered at the mere prospect of speaking in public.
Why? Because they are frightened of being judged, making mistakes, forgetting their lines, or being exposed.
Here is some great news from someone who has spoken internationally for decades
Most audiences want you to succeed; they are rooting for you and want to hear what you have to say. If they have made their way to sit as part of your audience, they have chosen to be there.
About what subject do you know most? Say it out loud. If we were together, and I asked you to give me a 10-second idiot’s guide to introduce your subject, what would you tell me? You have probably done that before. When friends, new or existing, ask you, you can give them a brief overview.
If I was to ask you to tell me what are the key pieces of knowledge, or skills, or events in your subject area, what would you say? Go on, say it out loud. Which of those is most fascinating to you, and why? Again, say it as though I was standing there in front of you.
The chances are, you know a lot about the subject, and I know nothing or next to nothing about it. Would you mind if I asked you a few more questions to help me understand?
You’ve probably had that conversation, and you probably shared the information, and the person who asked, gained much knowledge and was appreciative.
How did you feel when the person was interested in your subject and what you had to say about it? Probably quite good.
You probably spoke in your normal tone when you were sharing the information, perhaps with a bit more enthusiasm because it was your pet subject.
If so, you have already mastered the key principles of public speaking. Almost all public speaking is sharing knowledge by someone who has taken the time to learn about a subject with those who want to learn about that subject.
Over the years, I have successfully coached many people in public speaking. Each time, I ask them to tell me about an upcoming talk they have. What is the topic? They tell me about it. I ask a few questions. They answer. I ask for a bit of elaboration.
They provide it. I ask how they felt about our interaction, and they say fine or good. I ask if they had to behave in any way other than normal to help me understand the subject they are a relative expert. They say no.
That is the key to effective public speaking: just be yourself talking to someone who is interested in your subject.
People have a misguided sense that they need to be something, someone, other than themselves, to speak in public. The exact opposite is the truth! The more you are yourself, the more authentic and credible you will be. Audiences love people being themselves.
If you are a little nervous, tell the audience the reason for that: you have some useful information and want to ensure that they benefit from it. Audiences are very supportive of honest speakers.
How can you improve your ability to stay calm and be yourself when speaking in public?
When you are socialising, and someone asks you for information on something about which you have the knowledge, see it as a mini-rehearsal opportunity.
- Practising remaining yourself and enjoying sharing the information while staying calm is a rehearsal.
- Once you have done that a few times, prepare a longer presentation on the same topic, and deliver it to your mobile phone video recorder. Speak to the camera as if to an interested friend.
- Do that a few times until you feel ready to speak to an audience. That audience can be a few friends at dinner, a couple of colleagues at work, or some hobby buddies.
Again, let me emphasise that you are rehearsing being you, sharing information that you love, in a calm way. After practising a few times above, stretch yourself if you want to improve your abilities. Perhaps present with the aid of a screen and some images.
If you have already shared information with friends and other interested parties, you will know this: focus on the people you are speaking for; the people are sharing with. Seek to give them the information they want in ways that are easy to understand for non-experts in your topic.
In the past, when you shared information with friends, did you use notes? No. You knew your subject so well that notes were unnecessary and would have been a distraction.
When you feel comfortable sharing your knowledge with larger audiences, at most, have a series of bullet points written on a piece of paper or use your visual slides as a cue to your next topic.
What do you do with your eyes when you share information with friends? You look at them. Why? To pick up signals that enable you to better connect with them. Do the same when you are speaking to an audience of future friends.
When you understand your subject, use your mental capacity to read your audience; to better connect with the people you want to share with; in the same way that you read anyone you speak to while speaking.
When people start relaxing about being themselves while speaking in public, they quickly become effective and appreciated.
- If you make a mistake when speaking in public (and I have made thousands on stage), laugh about it, emphasise it, and make a joke at your own expense.
- If you trip over your words, repeat the error and exaggerate it. If you mangle your grammar, highlight it; ‘Did I really just say that?’
- If you put up the wrong slide, make a quip about it: ‘And when I find the right slide, perhaps, you’ll hear an outbreak of sense!’
- If you get heckled (vanishingly rare), point out that your ‘fan club has arrived.’ Whatever happens when you are speaking in public, if you enjoy it, the audience will, too.
Remember, you are there to share knowledge that the audience wants, and the more the audience can sense that you want to serve and be yourself, the more supportive they will be.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.
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