- Do the words “public speaking” cause fear and anxiety in your normally cheerful and confident mind?
- Does the thought of speaking in front of a group evoke fear, make you sweat, and get your heart pounding?
Well, if so, you’re not alone! Public Speaking (aka ‘glossophobia’) affects up to 75% of the UK population, and is the country’s second most common fear.
I was reminded of this recently when I spoke to a delegate who shared that the thought of standing up and speaking in front of people was his absolute nightmare. This gentleman was a senior manager and openly admitted that while he enjoyed his job, liked and trusted his colleagues, he would mentally freak at the thought of having to give a presentation or a speech in front of them.
An acquaintance who also dreads public speaking described the fear as, “paralysing”. The thing that bothered him most was the actual standing in front of an audience bit. He didn’t necessarily mind explaining a point in front of a meeting group, but he froze the second he thought he thought he had to stand up on stage in front of people.
When I did my PGCE, along with most of my cohort, I felt that the very best teachers were the ones who really did come alive in the spotlight. Surprisingly, there were in fact very few of us who loved that particular element of teaching. We didn’t mind it but, given a choice, most of us preferred teaching to smaller groups away from standing up in front of the class.
On a personal level, given my own career choice, it’s fair to say that speaking in front of a packed room isn’t something that bothers me. (If we were to be discussing ‘heights’ then that would be a different matter!) As above, I don’t particularly relish the spotlight or thrive on the attention, and I am usually nervous before I start speaking. Once started though, I get into my flow and I enjoy it. I know at least two other professional trainers who say the same thing.
So what does this suggest? Well, maybe that very few people are natural born public speakers?
When asked to name great speakers, a quick straw poll of colleagues produces some familiar names; Martin Luther King , Barrack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey. There were also a few less obvious ones like Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher. While the ‘obvious’ names are, well, obvious, the other names which sometimes come up, such as e.g. Stormzy, are more of a natural reflection of someone’s age and political persuasion. We discuss this in detail on my Presentation Skills Training days and pick apart what exactly makes someone great, and another person less so.
Public speaking expert, Caroline Goyder, says that to be a great speaker there should be three things present. These can be summarised as:
· Expertise – your audience needs to believe that you fully understand what are you are talking about. Either you are a proven expert in the subject, or it is something you have personally experienced.
· Passion – you have to be enthusiastic about your subject. The audience needs to feel like you want to speak to them and share your knowledge.
· Authenticity – your audience has to feel that you believe what you are saying to them. . We often see politicians criticised for being ‘shifty’ or more bluntly ‘outright lying’! This happens when we don’t believe that they are being honest with us. They lack authenticity.
So to return to our list of great speakers, I often refer to Martin Luther King in training days, and I still believe his ‘I have a Dream‘ speech is the watermark for great oratory.
I think it is because it checks the three elements I have listed above. Dr King was both an African-American living with racism and also an academic so he was therefore an expert when he spoke about civil rights. In that speech he references his own family and his own experiences which clearly demonstrates his authenticity. He believes what he is telling us. The passion goes without saying, and this is probably one of the most memorable elements of that speech.
Former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s speech denouncing terrorism at her party’s conference the morning after the Brighton Bombing is notable. Again, it contains the three elements which Caroline Goyder says we need: it is authentic – the bomb was an attempt to assassinate the PM and her colleagues; it is passionate – she is clearly angry, disgusted, and no doubt frightened by what has just happened; and she is undoubtedly an expert by virtue of her political and personal experience of terrorism.
So now we know what makes a great speech, how can we start using this ourselves? What if you’re still terrified of getting up on stage, or quaking at the thought of drying up in front of your work colleagues? While very few of us will ever be called upon to make speeches like Mrs Thatcher’s or Dr King’s (or even Adolf Hitler’s). We can still employ some of Goyder’s elements for success. Admittedly, it may seem a little challenging to evoke strong feelings when talking about, for example, health and safety at work but we can still try our best with what we have!
Here are some personal strategies which I use to deliver a great talk:
· If you are really petrified of standing in front of a crowd of people is there another way you can deliver your talk? Few managers will want you to be in a situation where you are terrified. Could the talk be delivered to smaller groups, around a table (so you don’t have to stand) or even via Zoom or Skype?
· Think beforehand about what you want your audience to come away with in terms of knowledge or training? Focus on two or three learning objectives and this will give you a framework around which to base your talk.
· Prepare, prepare, prepare!! If you do nothing else, please do this! I cannot over-emphasise the need for proper preparation. Sort out all your handouts, notes, and visuals (Powerpoint, Prezi, etc) the day before.
· If you are really nervous, consider ditching the visuals completely. They are just something else to potentially go wrong, and nervous speakers usually end up completely focussing on the screen and reading from the slides neither of which makes for a great learning or presenting experience. Have some written bullet points or a mindmap in front of you instead.
· Rehearse your timings in advance. Time often goes a lot quicker than you think it will once you start talking, so make sure you have extra material or an activity in reserve just in case.
· Try not talk for more than 20 minutes at a time. Break up the talk with an activity or coffee break. If you’re nervous this will also help you break your talking time down into shorter chunks so it won’t feel like such an ordeal.
Finally, it’s easier said than done but try and relax! Your audience want you to succeed. And remember, both Barrack Obama and Margaret Thatcher were each once told that they would never make a great speakers. While few of us will ever be ‘great’, most of us can work towards being ‘good’!
It was UCLA academic Albert Mehrabian who taught us that good communication is made up of three parts:
- Body language; and
- Tone of voice
I lead learning groups in both presentation skills and autism support. Within these sessions, we spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we may need to tailor our communication if the receiver has a barrier to their understanding – as in the case of an autistic person. Or, if we ourselves are a little unsure about the communication – as with someone who is new to public speaking or writing for an audience.
Most of us are familiar with the concept that how we say something is as important – if not more so – than what we actually say.
“Timbre” refers to the quality of the sound we make. If we’re describing a person’s voice as: harsh, soft, rough, silky, breathy, raspy. Each of those adjectives could refer to the timbre. The timbre of the Glasgow accent is very different from the timbre of the Birmingham accent. And the timbre often conveys a particular tone, which is where it really get interesting.
“Tone” refers to the character of the voice. The tone you use is the impression you wish to convey with your speech: brisk, businesslike, authoritative, vulnerable, or friendly. Each of these words may describe the tone of a person’s written or spoken communication.
Tone isn’t just restricted to the spoken word. Your written communication has a tone, as does the overall feel and message of the thing you wish to communicate.
Even a brand can have a tone.
I worked for advertising giant, McCanns, back in the 1990s. At this time one of the agency’s clients was Coca-Cola, and I recall hours being spent crafting the unique tone of the brand’s messaging. Spend a moment thinking about Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans, e.g. ‘have a Coke and a smile’, or ‘you can’t beat the feeling’. These words all evoke feelings of happiness, friendship, sunshine, and so on. Even more so because within Coca-Cola’s advertising, the taste of the drink itself is very rarely mentioned. The tone and message is conveyed through facial expressions and smiles. Now this is no accident! Coca-Cola’s (and their advertisers’!) amazing success demonstrates just how powerful the tone we use in our communication is, and how words by themselves are just one part of this.
So how can we make sure that we get our own tone right, and convey the message we intend? I would start with:
- Being sincere.
- Be authentic.
- Being confident.
I have put these three together as it’s hard to have one without the other two. If you are confident in the message you’re delivering, and you really believe it, you will usually come across as authentic and sincere. There is nothing wrong with being a little nervous when speaking (or writing!) for the first time, and being self-aware is no bad thing and won’t detract from clear sincerity. But trying to convince an audience of something that you yourself don’t really believe, rarely works. In public speaking your body language will tell a different story from the words you are using, and a fake or false tone is hard to maintain in regular written communication.
Mind your language – don’t use discriminatory language (even in jest), mild profanity or blasphemy. You will offend people – trust me, you will! Humour is a very personal thing and it’s difficult to get the tone right with it. Even more so if the joke you are trying to make is about a potentially sensitive matter. I always think it’s best just to steer clear!
Avoid jargon – most people hate it. In particular ‘management course speak’ .e.g. “Reaching out”, “touch base offline”, and so on.
Finish with a sense-check. Do you really understand what you’re about to say, or what you have written? Really? Could you summarise it all in one or two sentences for a five year old child? To paraphrase Albert Einstein, there is nothing so complicated that even a small child cannot understand it if it’s explained properly.
If you can’t summarise your message in this way, then you may need to take another look at your work and refine it. Generally, the more complicated the message, the more likely that the tone you wish to convey will get lost beneath the ‘fluff’. The simpler you keep things, the easier it is to keep the tone you want.
And finally, let your own personality shine through. If you’re a friendly and informal type of person, then it’s going to be difficult to maintain a cool and uber-distanced tone (remember what we said about being authentic?) It’s far easier and more natural to work with your own personality, and maintain professionalism by being respectful to your listener or reader and, as above, avoiding unnecessary jargon, slang, or potentially offensive language.
I hope this is helpful and I would love to hear any of your thoughts about how to keep the tone right in your spoken or written communication!