Wednesday, May 9, 2007

I would rather eat glass than speak in public...

...but it is frequently unavoidable. In the summer of 2005, I started attending and joined our twice monthly local Toastmasters group in an attempt to overcome my speech anxiety. I made it as far as the first speech, before my schedule changed and made it impossible to attend.

Ready or not, I still have to speak. And I still dread it.

I haven't progressed past the reading-the-entire-speech-from-written-text stage. I know how painful it can be to listen to someone reading a speech. Unfortunately, such empathy only makes me more nervous.

Polished speakers needn't do any of these things. Unpolished as I am, I still must speak. Therefore, I rely on these crutches mitigating strategies, most likely violating many of the commandments on the canonical "Top 97 ways improve your Public Speaking" lists. However, I still need them, and they've helped me:

Public Speaking Tips for the Deathly Afraid and Unwilling Presenter:
  1. I print the text in a large, serif font. (18 or 20 points.)

  2. I write very short paragraphs. Often, one sentence is its own paragraph. This helps me slow down and avoid merging sentences.

  3. I write the term " [deep breath] " as its own paragraph at the beginning, and in strategic locations throughout the document, using a red font if printing in color. This helps remind me to breathe and pause when appropriate, such as a pause before transitioning to the conclusion.

  4. I don't staple the pages, but rather use a binding machine to make a booklet, printing on one side of the paper. This lets me turn the pages, not shuffle them.

  5. After being flustered and embarrassed at a couple very generous and flowery introductions, I now ask whoever is supposed to introduce me to keep it as short and impersonal as possible.

    Hearing a hyperbolic description of myself might be flattering in another context, but the compliments make me blush, provoke an unexpected emotional response and make me want to respond to them in real time. All of which is just Too Much for me when I have to face down a microphone. I guess this could be filed under, "know and respect your limits".

  6. Often I have a list of people to thank. This is not optional. I like to get the volunteer-thanking overwith in the beginning, as soon as I get up there.

    This gets me speaking about something expected, and gives me a few words to warm up.
    If the microphone needs to be adjusted to my height, it won't scramble my thoughts, because thank-yous are straightforward. If my voice cracks in the thank-yous, nobody will notice.

    I figure, once the main part of the speech is finished, nobody listens to the names of the volunteers. I'll want to run away from step down from the podium as soon as possible. People have more patience for the thank-yous in the beginning of the talk, and at the beginning of the talk, I have more tolerance for saying them.

    This also lets me end with what I want to leave them with.

  7. I rehearse obsessively, often with a timer. A minimum requirement for the "I guess I'm as ready as I'm going to be" feeling, is having it last the same time (plus or minus a few seconds), five times in a row.

  8. I aim to be brief. I figure, this way, they can always say, "At least it was short."

  9. My audience is usually Jewish. When researching content and composing thoughts, I use the weekly parsha (Torah portion). My calculation is that one can't go wrong looking for either wisdom or salvation from the Torah.
    Translating this idea to use with other audiences would mean finding the audience's most trusted authorities, and study them for content inspiration and guidance.

  10. I spend more time davening about the speech than preparing it. Really.

  11. For major speeches at our school, I snagged a picture off the internet of Rabbi Soleveitchik, our school's founder, and I imbed it in the speech text. His face staring at me from my booklet, while intimidating, helps me keep focus and remember that the forum deserves worthy content. Somehow this shakes away some of my nervousness.

  12. When feelings of insecurity and incompetence run amok, I try to forget the depth of my inadequacy and focus instead on the worthiness of the audience. I remove myself from the equation by asking myself questions in the passive voice. I ask myself, "What would be worthy of this forum, of this audience" rather than, "What do I think about [whatever topic or occasion has dragged me into this situation]."

  13. I only present when I must, about topics that matter to me. It's not in my nature to "fake it" or "shmooze" an audience. I make it my business to find a relevent topic that engages me passionately.

I haven't conquered my fears of public speaking. These are ways to manage those fears. I look forward to scurrying away from the spotlight graduating from these methods someday. Meanwhile, perhaps there's a reader who can benefit from sharing my training wheels. Good luck!

Here are some links to other worthwhile public speaking suggestions. Some of them contradict one another, but that's one of the many joys of lists of suggestions, right?

Public Speaking for Newbies from The Dumb Little Man who appears to be anything but dumb.

Overcome Fear Of Public Speaking By Feeling The Love is a gentle and encouraging list.

Afraid to Give a Speech? Don’t Be! Take Charge. by Charles Feldman.

Public Speaking Survival Tips on The Information Blog with a bent toward self-hypnosis.

Eight tips for an effective speech by Jack Vaenti, with guidelines for how long to speak, depending on the event.

I also enjoyed the audiobook, 10 Days to More Confident Public Speaking by the The Princeton Language Institute and Lenny Laskowski. It was particularly effective in audio format. I'm not sure I would have absorbed as much by reading it. It is an extremely comprehensive guide.


Here is a list from Guy Kawasaki, with some truly fresh tips. It's for the more advanced, less timid speakers, though.

This is a free e-book with pithy and fresh ideas from Scott, the guy who wears the Hello My Name Is nametag 24/7. These are suggestions for advanced speakers, definitely not those of us still hiding behind shaking piles of notes.

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Anonymous said...

Juggling Frog, you are not alone in your fear of public speaking. In my experience, it is still the #1 fear people have. The more you speak, the harder it will be to stay fearful. The greatest way to lose fear of speaking is to focus 100% of your energies on helping your audience. If you truly become focused on helping your audience, it will no longer be possible to feel fear for yourself.

Juggling Frogs said...

TJ Walker,

Thank you for your comments.

I'm just so glad that my schedule doesn't require as much speaking this year, so that I can "help" the audiences by not having them subjected to my nervous presentations!

What you said is very true, though.

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