In ninth grade I had to give a speech in English class and I was terrified. I vividly remember being too nervous to take off my jean jacket and wearing my old glasses because I'd lost a contact lens the day before. I knew that public speaking was a skill that I must someday learn so my Junior year of high school I joined the speech team. My first speech was a disaster. I was so anxious that I didn't eat anything all day and when I gave my first speech my cheek twitched uncontrollably the entire time. Over time I got better. I participated in competitive speech for two years in high school and three years in college. In fact, I have a Bachelor's Degree in Communications.
After all these years I realized that there were some vital parts of public speaking that I did not learn in school. I am going to look at three of them now.
First, I did not learn any tricks for calming my nerves. In that first speech class in high school we did activities that put us in front of the class and that was helpful, but I did not learn how to calm my nerves before a speech. There are a lot of tricks public speakers use but I cannot remember being taught any of them. The following are some examples:
- Arriving early and scoping out the venue. Go to where you'll be speaking and stand there for a minute. It won't seem unfamiliar when you get up to speak.
- Looking at a fixed point in the room when you start speaking and then looking around at the crowd once you feel more comfortable.
- Knowing what to do with your hands. This is where you have to plan beforehand. Deciding what to do with your hands before you start speaking is essential. If I was speaking behind a podium, I would put my hands on it until my nerves calmed down. If there was nothing to stand behind, holding a microphone with both hands was helpful. Also, holding the microphone with one hand and putting a thumb in my pocket worked for me. Standing and absentmindedly moving your hands around is a distraction to the crowd.
- Wear clothes that make you feel more confident. When you are confident in how you look, that is one less thing to worry about.
- If you cannot have notes, write the key points of the speech on an index card and put it in your pocket. That way if you freeze, you can look at the card and get your bearings again.
- Stories are a great way to start speech since it usually makes the speaker feel more comfortable and people love a good story. One effective trick is to start with a story but don't finish it until the end of the speech. At an important moment, cut away to something else but return to finish it at the end.
- The first line is essential. "In the hole in the ground lived a Hobbit." JRR Tolkien's classic story starts with a great line. A good opening line catches the audience's attention and opens them up to trusting you to keep their attention.
- Next, the story must have some details but not too many. My tendency has always been to include too many details. A few tiny details make a story feel more real but momentum is more important than details. Details build trust but too many details bore the audience.
- The conclusion of the story is what our audience will remember. If it's a funny story, don't laugh yourself. Never laugh at your own jokes. Pause for laughs and then continue with the speech. If it's a serious story, the same rule applies. Pause to let it sink in, then move on.
Finally, I was not taught how to deal with frowns in the audience. In almost every crowd I've spoken to there has been someone who seemed to give me a negative response. It's unnerving. I would get rattled by one person who looked unhappy even if the rest of the room was engaged. Over the years I have learned several things about a negative response.
- The person in the audience may be genuinely unhappy but it has nothing to do with you. They could have just received bad news or dealing with a difficult situation. The person may have great interest in what you have to say but cannot get past their current circumstance.
- Someone might be frowning because they are intensely processing what you have to say. It's hard to discern when someone is reacting like that.
- Some people have what my wife calls "resting crabby face". They might be sitting and thinking about something they enjoy but their face looks like they are unhappy. They are not intentionally frowning but they give that appearance. That person might be enjoying your speech but giving the opposite impression.
- If someone is falling asleep during your speech, you might feel like they are disinterested in your speech, but may not be the case. Through my years of untreated Sleep Apnea I fell asleep listening to many speakers despite great interest in what they had to say. I'm sure some of them thought I was rude but I couldn't help it.
- Some people may not like you for reasons out of your control. They may dislike you for your race, gender, appearance, or something you represent. They may be angry at something you said or for something they perceived you said. It doesn't matter how benign your subject matter may be, some people just need find something they dislike and dwell on it. No matter how hard you try, you will not win them over. The tendency is to try and win them over at the expense of the rest of the crowd. The sad reality is that anyone who engages in public speaking needs to learn how to accept the small percentage of people who don't like you and focus on the large group that does.
I don't mean to degrade the educators in high school and college that worked with me as I learned to speak to groups. I learned so much and will always be grateful them. My hope is that my children will learn some of these things earlier than I did and surpass me as a public speaker.