Recently, I attended TEDxSF, a communal, multidisciplinary event (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) whose goal is to bring thinkers together to share ideas they’re passionate about. While there, I had the pleasure of watching nearly a dozen different speakers talk to a packed auditorium. Each person had his or her own unique tactic for engaging the audience and holding us captive. A few had rehearsed presentations backed by visual aids, while others seemed to be just making it up as they went, using a lot of self-deprecating humor along the way. Some were better than others, but on the whole, everyone was confident and quite effective in grabbing the audience’s attention.
One speaker, however—a man who was reciting some poetry that he had written himself—was visibly petrified. At first, he tried to read from memory, but he repeatedly failed to remember the words. Again and again, he would apologize, then start over. When he finally broke down and pulled his notes from his pocket, his hands were shaking wildly and his voice stuttered as he struggled every second to just get through to the end of his presentation. It was painful to see him suffer. I just wanted to yell to him, “It’s going to be okay. You’re doing fine.” When he finished, a palpable sense of calm washed over the whole auditorium. Everyone was relieved it was over—for him.
Recognize a Common Fear
Before you embark upon on a self-taught path to becoming a more able presenter, it may be helpful to know that fear of public speaking is not uncommon. According to a 2001 Gallup Poll, 40 percent of Americans admit to being afraid to speak in front of an audience; in fact, this fear ranks second only to fear of snakes. Gavin de Becker, a renowned expert on the prediction and management of violence, believes that fear of public speaking is really about being afraid of losing one’s identity. If we fail to successfully deliver a speech at a wedding or a presentation in a boardroom, we’re at risk of humiliating ourselves and losing our identity. This fear can be debilitating.
Take It from the Experts
Enter Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization with a stated mission of “helping people become more competent and comfortable in front of an audience.” At Toastmasters’ events, members meet for a few hours and hone their communication skills by role-playing and giving either planned or impromptu speeches in front of other members. On November 5, 2007, NPR reported on filmmaker Keva Rosenfeld’s experience when he joined his local Toastmasters club to overcome his fear of public speaking. Rosenfeld came to the conclusion that public-speaking ability is not something we are born with, but rather something everyone can learn by following the Toastmasters’ proven techniques:
1. Know your material. Pick a topic you’re interested in. Know more about it than you include in your speech. Use humor, personal stories, and conversational language—that way, you won’t easily forget what to say.
2. Practice, practice, practice! Rehearse out loud with all the equipment you plan on using. Revise as necessary. Work to control filler words; practice, pause, and breathe. Practice with a timer and allow time for the unexpected.
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