So many people have a fear of public speaking (or glossophobia). The notorious wedding gaffs, the blundering after-dinner soliloquy, politicians who pulverise their careers in a single speech. The list of public speaking nightmares is endless. Many of us know people either directly or indirectly who have got blind drunk just to face “the mob”.
It makes no difference whether “the mob” is three people in a back room or a worldwide audience listening via satellite. An unknown audience looms like a demon, waiting to devour you the minute you falter. Yet oddly enough,this vulnerability – the moment in which you hesitate and see your speech assuming the shape of a large pear – is what can connect you to your audience. They see that you are human, and most of them understand. A polished speech delivered with effortless confidence might well get a good reception. But a speech which comes from the heart will often be more memorable.
I do not consider myself to be a first-class public speaker. When I became a volunteer speaker for Guide dogs I had no idea whether the experience would destroy my confidence or increase it.. Something inside me relished the challenge, but the thought of actually delivering a speech churned my stomach. I had no previous training or experience, so when I received a phone call last Summer asking me to give a talk at a local primary school I was terrified.
The terror manifested itself physically. Standing in front of the entire school, my voice wobbled, my hands shook, my heart clapped against my chest, and the sweat poured down my face. My guide dog Trudy was nonplussed, and lay in a quiet heap at my feet, steady as ever. As my nerves escalated I began to falter. Suddenly the realisation that 90 children were hanging on my every word sent me into a paroxysm of panic. They were all listening to me! (This is apparently known as the “spotlight effect”). What if I messed it up? What if I couldn’t finish? I was speaking without notes as I’m not a braillist, so everything I needed was inside my head. The same head that was swimming with half-formed words and misshapen thoughts. I froze for a good few seconds. The silence thundered in my ears. This was make or break, and I knew it. But somehow I managed to regain my composure. The conviction that I was about to die became less of an issue. My voice still wobbled like a de-railing train, but I made it to the end. What’s more, I got a positive reception from the children and teachers. This was my first building block in the confidence tower. When the talk was over, the adrenalin buzzed through me and I felt truly elated. The relief was indescribable. Afterwards I wondered what had made my first talk a success. After all, my nerves were bubbling for all to see. Yet this seemed to bother me more than my audience. They listened and responded to me, they felt my passion and they knew it was real.
I have given several talks since, mainly to adult audiences. My nerves still plague me and I cringe at the sound of my vibrato voice. But at least the fear is very familiar now, I know exactly what to expect. I also know that the fear won’t get any worse, it won’t kill me and it’s never forced me to abandon a talk and walk out. I would say we’re evenly matched, my fear and I. The feedback I’ve received has shown me that being nervous does not necessarily alienate an audience. They hear the emotion in your voice, they see the raw struggle as you shake and stammer, and they’re alongside you when you win the battle.
Being a volunteer speaker has given me fantastic experience. Talking about guide dogs and GDBA does not attract antagonists – quite the opposite in fact. Speaking to largely sympathetic audiences has allowed my confidence to steadily grow. My experience has taught me some valuable lessons in how to connect with an audience, young or old. The following tips may be useful.
1 R Relevance – Make sure your speech is relevant, know your audience, find out what they want
2 I Interaction – Involving your audience keeps them focussed and enables you to understand them
3 P Preparation – Make sure you’ve researched your talk and established which points are important
4 P Practise – Rehearse your speech, read it out loud over and over again and get the rhythm right
5 L Length – Find out how long you’re required to talk for and time yourself beforehand
6 E Enthusiasm – Enthusiasm is contagious, it defines your delivery. Speak from your heart
One final tip: humour is a great ice-breaker and if you can laugh it will dissipate your tension as well as add to your audience’s enjoyment.