In the days of Demosthenes, a famous orator of Ancient Greece, people put a high value on the ability to speak well in public. Throughout the centuries to our present day, the people who have moved us, motivated us and changed the course of history were great speakers. Today, in our digital, text-obsessed world, those who speak confidently and effectively stand out from the crowd. More than ever, we need people who speak well – not just with good grammar and clear diction, but who engage and connect with their listeners.
Nowadays, few of us have occasion to give speeches in a Greek amphitheatre, but we do all speak. We speak from podiums and pulpits, in classrooms and boardrooms, raising funds and raising awareness. Everybody speaks.
Speaking in public is both an art and a skill. To excel, you need training and practice. I’ve been onstage since early childhood, as a pianist and singer, more recently as an actress. As an adult, I took training to transpose those abilities to the field of public speaking. I’ve spent a lifetime learning and mastering the art and skill of performing and public speaking. But it doesn’t have to take you a lifetime!
A training program that works!
For nearly four years, I’ve been developing and testing a self-study training program called SPEAK UP! How to Talk So People Listen. As a lifelong performer, I know that great stage presence and polish start with inner assurance and self confidence. The SPEAK UP! program has it all – how to banish stage fright and manage “butterflies” (if I did it, you can do it!) and how to present in an engaging, effective and memorable way.
Free Webinar! Please join me!
On November 8, 13, 15 and 19, I’m launching my program with a free webinar. Many webinars are extended product pitches, but not this one. I’ll be speaking directly to you on camera, sharing valuable insights on how you can instantly improve your presenting style. Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or new to presenting, you won’t want to miss this webinar. You’ll increase your knowledge, your understanding and your expertise.
Register for the webinar by clicking here.
If you click through to the Registration page, you’ll see the four dates available, with two times for each day. I hope one of those fits your schedule.
Those ancient Greeks were right. Good public speaking has always been important, and never more so than right now. Please join me for my webinar. Let me help you become the speaker you were born to be.
Register for the webinar now. Click here.
“You cannot perform in a manner that is inconsistent with the way you see yourself.” Zig Ziglar, corporate trainer and motivational speaker
This quote stood out to me as another way of stating one of my favourite themes: “Whatever is going on inside shows on the outside.” This is why presentation skills training must focus on more than just the “do’s” and “don’ts” of outer behaviour. Outer behaviour is Step Two in the journey to becoming an effective speaker.
The wise traveller knows you can’t skip Step One and have a successful journey. Step One is self management, finding an inner core of assurance from which you reach out and connect with others. If you try to reach out without that basis, what can you offer that isn’t hollow, an act, indeed, a sham? You can only give from what you have. To give value, you must be giving from confidence in your own value.
I’ve mentioned before that I like to watch Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, on National Geographic TV. Why do I love this man? Maybe because he’s constantly talking about my two favourite topics: energy and intention. Calm, assertive energy and clear intention are as effective in connecting with an audience as they are in training a dog.
I was thinking about Cesar’s work with dogs, and it occurred to me that here is a supremely self confident person, yet he hasn’t a trace – at least from what we can see on his TV program – of arrogance. Then I thought, “I wonder if one of the stumbling blocks to developing self confidence is that people confuse it with arrogance.” It got me thinking about the difference between self confidence and arrogance. Maybe we can clear up some of the confusion if we look closely at those two attributes. Let’s use Cesar Milan as an example and a role model.
Arrogance puts down; self confidence lifts up.
What is arrogance? Well, it isn’t pretty. An arrogant person displays an attitude that he or she is better than others. It strikes me that arrogance is the mark of a small, frightened person who is extremely concerned with how he or she looks in the eyes of the world. This person needs to appear better than others – more important, more intelligent, more spiritual, more anything. It’s unpleasant to be around an arrogant person. By definition, arrogance is disrespectful. Vaunting oneself up is the opposite side of putting others down. An arrogant person doesn’t realize that you can’t raise yourself up by putting other people down.
Self confidence, on the other hand, never needs to put others down. It looks for ways to build others up. While Cesar sometimes pokes a little fun at owners’ inappropriate behaviour toward their dogs, he always does so in a context of guiding the owner to a higher quality of calm, assertive energy. He makes it clear that the dog needs the owner to show self confidence – and the real thing, too, not just an act. Cesar isn’t the slightest bit concerned about how he looks, but is totally focused on drawing leadership qualities from the owner. The self confident person offers empowerment, not disempowerment. Cesar’s self confidence is delightful to behold. It shines from him like a light to guide the people he trains.
Cesar is absolutely convinced of the value of what he does. Surely as presenters, we speak because it gives something worthwhile, something of value to others. We seek to make other people’s lives better in some way. Doesn’t it follow that a person who does something of value is valuable in the doing of it? Shouldn’t giving value to others be a source of self pride and self confidence?
When examined carefully, arrogance and self confidence show themselves to be complete opposites! How could we ever have mistaken one for the other? Why, self confidence is downright beautiful! It’s a gift to those around us. If we’re interested in giving value to others – and it can be as simple as a kind word, a smile or arriving on time – then we can be confident of our own value in the giving of it.
When we’re confident of our own worth – self confident – we perform at our best. Whatever is going on inside shows on the outside.
Things get done because people work together. The better people communicate, the better they get along, and the more effectively they work together. We need to know how to communicate, how to talk with one another.
When it comes to talking to more than one person, though, many people have a problem. The problem ranges from discomfort (“I can do it, but I wish I didn’t have to”) to terror (“I’ll do anything to avoid speaking in public!”) For these people, the problem is not the act of speaking to a group. The problem is what’s going on inside their head.
In my last article, Your Subconscious Matters, I wrote, “Speakers must have their own feelings – their inner self – in a cooperative state…if your unconscious brain is not on board it will sabotage your performance every time…whatever is going on inside will show on the outside.”
By definition, we’re not conscious of what’s in our subconscious. How can we change it if we don’t know what’s in there? How can we get an uncooperative subconscious on board?
Perceptions = Assumptions = Feelings
The subconscious mind speaks the language of feelings, not conceptual thought. It gives instructions to the conscious mind according to how it feels about this or that issue. Our feelings are the end result of our perceptions. Those perceptions generate assumptions about the world around us and the people we meet. Our assumptions become the lens through which we see everything, including ourselves. Without realizing it, we assume people and situations to be a certain way, or that they should be a certain way. When something doesn’t fit into the box of our assumption, we have negative feelings about it. If we assume that speaking to a group is a threatening situation, we will have negative feelings about doing so. If we assume we are vulnerable to the criticism of others (even a little bit!) we will have negative feelings about our audience. If we assume ourselves to be inadequate or unworthy to speak, we will have negative feelings about ourselves.
There’s no such thing as a positive result from a negative journey. If we have negative feelings, we will not have a positive experience or achieve a positive result. Somehow, we have to do something about those negative feelings. In my own experience, I was able to change my feelings by examining and changing my assumptions. When I changed my assumptions, my perceptions changed. A changed perception – a new perspective – changed my feelings, which changed my experience.
Shining a light on assumptions
It’s my belief that you have to know where you are before you can get from there to where you want to go. I think we need to know what our assumptions are, but examining them can be difficult since we’re often unaware of them. That’s where writing things down can help bring them to light. If you have negative feelings about speaking, which part of it, exactly, do those feelings relate to? What have you assumed? Get specific. Let’s say that you assume your audience will be critical and judgmental of you. Now ask yourself if that assumption is accurate. Can you name people who always have a critical attitude toward the speaker? Maybe you can, but is it only one person, or is everybody you know like that? Are you like that? Do you think that’s a productive attitude to have? Can you give dates and times when their critical attitude resulted in disaster for the speaker? Is your assumption factually accurate, or is it based in an inaccurate perception?
Perception is a choice.
Now, perception is something we can intentionally change. We choose what view we take. We can choose to have a fearful, victimized perception that focuses on negatives – our own and those of others – or a compassionate, generous perception that focuses on positives. Sometimes we need help to do so – I did – but it can be done.
If you do seek the assistance of a trainer or counsellor, I have one caveat. Don’t get caught in “yeah, buts”, arguing for your limitations. The only person a coach cannot help is someone who greets every suggested solution with a reason why it won’t work. Stay open. Look closely. Give new ideas a chance. Your subconscious is more cooperative than you think.
“We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.” Antonio Damasio, Neuroscientist
Conventional wisdom used to be that rational, conscious thinking organized our life. The conscious part of the brain sat up there at the top of our head like a mini-manager, logically guiding us through our days and our decisions. Advances in neuroscience over the past couple of decades show that this old view is completely wrong. Yes, the conscious brain manages and initiates our actions, but it does so based on instructions from the part of our brain that operates below conscious awareness, our emotions and instincts. That goes for all of us, not just so-called “emotional types” – analytical, left-brain types, too. Our feelings make the first decisions, and our conscious brain follows out their orders, often by rationalizing those feeling impulses.
This new knowledge has huge implications for speakers in any setting, large or small. If we wish to be effective and understood, we must pay attention to the emotional effect we are having on our listeners.
If you have penetrating questions to ask, or have serious or negative news to convey, you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make your listeners feel they are under attack. No matter whom you’re talking to – your employees, your spouse or your children – if your listeners feel they are being pinned to the wall, their conscious brain will be unable to cooperate with you, even if it wants to. Why? Because the unconscious part of their brain has activated all their protective mechanisms, one of which is refusing access to the rational, thinking brain. It’s much easier to bring your listener’s emotions into agreement when you have good news or an inspiring topic. When the news is not great is when real speaking skill is required. The wise speaker uses eye contact, facial expression, body language and tone of voice to create harmony, not threat.
Your inner self affects your speaking.
OK, that’s about the audience. What do these discoveries in neuroscience mean to you, the speaker? Why does it matter for you to know that you are a “feeling machine that thinks”? Because your feelings will dominate your outer expression no matter how hard you try to the contrary. Have you ever seen someone smile but their eyes were sad or frightened? That’s the power of the subconscious at work.
Speakers must have their own feelings – their inner self – in a cooperative state in order to inspire cooperation from their audience. No matter how many skills of eye contact, body language and voice production you learn, if your unconscious brain is not on board it will sabotage your performance every time. That’s why speaking training programs must include instruction on managing the speaker’s inner state. Self management is Step One. You can’t leapfrog over it, because whatever is going on inside will show on the outside.
SPEAK UP! Training Program – coming soon!
For the past year I’ve been consolidating the lessons I’ve learned and mastered over a lifetime of performing into a personal training program called SPEAK UP! How to Talk So People Listen. You don’t have to travel or take time off work to attend this course. It comes to you, both as a digital download and as a hard copy package, and you fit it into your schedule as you see fit. You will learn, first of all, how to manage your own inner state – your attitude, your perspective and your butterflies. As a performer, I know first-hand how crippling stage fright can be, and I show you how a change in viewpoint enables you to leave it behind. The second half of the program is about skilful outer expression, how to create the stage presence that engages an audience and keeps them with you. The program has it all – inner and outer!
In a couple of weeks (the date is still to be finalized) I will broadcast a free webinar to launch the SPEAK UP! Training Program. This will be no half-hour infomercial. I will be speaking to you on camera, offering valuable, useful instruction – well worth your time, whether you’re looking for a public speaking training program or not. I’m excited to invite you to visit http://publicspeakingperformance.com/ to learn more about the webinar and the SPEAK UP! Personal Training Program.
As soon as we have a specific date, you’ll be able to register for the webinar at http://publicspeakingperformance.com/. We’ve been sharing Tips on Talking for three years now. I can hardly wait to speak to you in person. Stay tuned!
Recently, I worked with a client who frequently says “um”. We all say it now and then, but it was so prominent in this client’s speaking that it reduced the power and impact, and even the sense of authority of the speaker. I also know a couple of people who say, “Okay?” after every sentence or two, as if they constantly need reassurance that the listener agrees or approves of them. Maybe they are just ensuring their listener is following, but the over-use of “Okay?” makes speakers sound unsure.
Speaking is a conscious act. To be effective, we need to be conscious of what we are saying. If we use a word or phrase so much that it becomes an unconscious habit, it makes a poor impression on the listener, lessening the effectiveness of our speaking.
Here’s another look at “habit words” with an article I wrote some time ago.
Eliminate “Um” and “Ah” from your Speaking
A friend of mine is an English teacher. He has a good command of the language, but it’s painful to listen to him give instructions. Why? Because after every couple of phrases he utters a prolonged “Aaaah” while he thinks of what to say next. It’s as if he took a knife and slashed across the fabric of his ideas every few seconds. Do you do that, too? It’s a common habit, but you can break it if you want.
Overworking your listener’s brain
We seem to have an unconscious feeling that we must fill every second with sound, that if we stop talking we will lose our listeners’ attention. In fact, the very opposite is true. Your listener’s brain is processing every sound you make. When you fill your speaking with “um” and “ah” (or any speech “dysfluency”) you interject a sound that is foreign to your train of thought. You force your listener’s brain to take a split second to process this non-word and reject it as meaningless. If you do this every few seconds, your listener’s brain is see-sawing back and forth, processing what your ARE saying and what you are NOT saying. From the listener’s point of view, it’s exhausting! If the habit is serious enough, the speaker looks unskilled and unintelligent, at best. Even ridiculous, at worst! Not only does the speaker sound unsure of him or herself, but the listeners end up focusing on the “ums” instead of listening to what the speaker is seeking to convey.
Pauses are a good thing.
Pauses, short silences, are crucial to good speaking. They give your audience time to digest what you have just said, and they also add a moment of dramatic tension. Without the interjection of a meaningless sound, the listener’s mind stays focused on what is being said. Indeed his/her attention is intensified in that second of expectation about what is coming next.
If you look up some of the great speakers of the twentieth century on YouTube, you will hear every one of them using short pauses. Listen to Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher. Not one of them says “um” or “ah” when they need a moment to think. Yet they all do occasionally search their mind for just the right word. Those little pauses not only help their audience’s comprehension, but also give them time to think.
Changing the habit
What can you do to change the “um/ah” habit? The first step is to start listening to yourself as your audience hears you. We all say “ah” now and then. How often do you say it? Does the frequency vary with the circumstances? Awareness is power. If you can hear it, you can change it.
For a presentation, carefully think through what you plan to say, and then practice it. When you’re sure of what you’re saying, you’re less likely to be tempted to fill a short “thinking moment” with sound. Try to catch yourself before you say “um”. Simply stop talking while you think. Intentionally take a breath. At first it will take courage to allow silence to reign, even for a second. Gradually you will find that your listeners do not “tune out” when you pause. They tune IN!
Don’t be hard on yourself if you find the “um” habit challenging to change. After all, if you’ve been using this meaningless filler all your life, you can’t expect to eliminate it immediately. If you can remember to work on it even once in a day, that’s progress. The payoff is big, however, so you will be motivated to keep at it. Your listeners will be more attentive, you will speak more proficiently and you will find that your own thinking process is more focused.
Combine the power of awareness with the power of intention to change, and you can move mountains. You can stop asking your audience’s brain to multi-task with frequent “ums” and “ahs”. You can keep their attention on what you are saying by giving them ONLY what you are saying!
“This doesn’t feel like me. It doesn’t feel natural!”
I hear this objection over and over when I ask clients to speak with more enthusiasm and animation in their face and their voice. If their usual presenting style is low key and low energy, speaking with more energy initially feels like putting on a suit of clothes that doesn’t fit. If their standard opener is a flat “I’m here to tell you about…,” and I come along and suggest opening with an enthusiastic, “What if you had access to a…?” they worry that they’ll look phony, as if they’re pretending to be someone they’re not.
Every time you interact with another person, you are playing some kind of a role. The role might be parent, spouse, employee, manager, friend or teacher. We don’t even realize how many roles we play in a day, and we flip from one to another in the blink of an eye, according to who we’re talking to. Make that, “presenting to”. Every time you talk to someone, whether their relationship with you is intimate, casual or formal, you’re presenting to them. They are your audience. You’re playing a part, in the same way as an actor on Broadway. And just like Broadway, some roles come so easily, you feel as if you’re hardly working at all. Other roles require you to dig deeper and work harder.
A Little Acting Lesson
Many people think that actors are people pretending to be someone they’re not. The reality is quite the opposite. Take a performer like Meryl Streep, who seems to be able to play any type of character and make us believe in her utterly. Why? Because she believes in the character as an extension of herself. Good acting is not pretending. It’s believing. Acting is sometimes called “make believe”. And who is the first person who must believe? The actor, him or herself. Good actors find something in themselves that resonates with the character they are playing, something that says, “Yes, given the right circumstances, I would behave as this character does.” Actors infuse a character with their own genuine self and genuine feelings. They are being real and genuine within a prescribed role and circumstance.
A New Role
Once I played a role where the character had a personality I didn’t think was like me. Sure, she had a heart of gold, but she was supremely self-confident – brash, bossy and flamboyant. The costume director dressed her in lots of animal prints and flashy colours. I loved the intensity of energy in the character, but the bossy, flamboyant side of her felt out of my comfort zone. I thought I would have to work hard to pull that off.
As rehearsals progressed, I found myself increasingly at home with the aspects of my onstage character that I had thought would feel unnatural. I discovered parts of me that had been waiting to be expressed. It was as if the character were teaching me to be more self-assured and assertive, as if she were saying, “Go ahead! Make a statement!” Not only did I feel genuine within the onstage role, but playing that role filled out my offstage personality. What started out feeling unnatural ended up being part of my natural, expanded self. It increased my self-expression, both onstage, within the prescribed role and circumstance, and off. It enlarged my experience of who I am.
You’re More than You Think
Just because something is outside your comfort zone doesn’t mean it’s wrong or false. When you bring the relaxed smiles from happy moments of your offstage life into a presentation, it’s not phony. It’s just unfamiliar to be doing it within that more formal, prescribed circumstance. You’re not used to showing the same enthusiasm onstage that you’d express in a one-on-one conversation. Yet it’s that very warmth and enthusiasm that makes you memorable to your audience.
So go ahead! Try being animated, enthusiastic and smiling. Give it the chance that it’s not unnatural, just new. I bet you’ll come to love the expanded version of yourself. As for me, I now love to wear animal prints.
I’m back from an unexpectedly long stay in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My father died the day after I had arrived for a week-long visit. (Amazingly, a similar situation occurred with my mother’s passing two years ago. My brother jokes that he’s not going to invite me to come to Winnipeg anymore.)
Neither of our parents wanted a formal, religious funeral, and so both times we held a simple, informal “Celebration of Life”. My brother, Rick, and I wanted a relaxed, appreciative yet light tone and an informal structure. It may be useful, if your turn at this experience is yet to come, to hear what our family did and said.
Both our parents lived into their nineties. Dad was a long-time, active member of the Lions Club of Winnipeg – President in 1967-68, and “Lion of the Year” in 1975. Mom took her turn as President of what was then called the “Lionelles”, wives of Lions. (Nowadays, Lions Club membership includes both women and men.) Rick is also a Lion, so it was fitting to hold both Celebrations at Lions Place, a seniors’ residence built and owned by the Lions Club, and managed by staff the club hires. Both times the staff set out chairs in rows and catered a spread of sandwiches and sweets, as well as tea and coffee.
For Mom, we’d had a recording of her favourite Chopin piano music playing while people arrived. We didn’t include hymns or other music in the presentation part of the events. Mom, however, was an excellent whistler, so for her I sang, unaccompanied, Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle”. I’m not sure how I got through that – maybe she helped me. For Dad, we knew it would be a large gathering and figured the room would be too noisy for background music.
There was no formal eulogy, and none of us spoke for more than ten minutes. (If you’d like some excellent guidance on delivering a eulogy, check out Denise Graveline’s blog, The Eloquent Woman.) For Mom, my father, my brother and I all spoke. For Dad, Rick and I were thankful to be able to include a favourite cousin, Ed, whose mother and our Dad were always very close. Ed and his wife cut short a motorcycle holiday in order to arrive in time.
Ed began his presentation by asking the family members to stand. There were only seven of us. Ed assured everyone that if we had been in Vancouver, where we originated, half the room would have been on their feet. He then asked in turn for neighbours, friends and people from various associations to stand. Dad was extremely active in many areas of community service, so it was fun to see how everyone was connected to him.
None of us gave a summary of Mom or Dad’s life, choosing instead to focus on special memories. We didn’t want long faces, so we kept it light, even humorous at times. Our parents were both exceptional people. Mom gave help and support to many people as head of Social Service for Winnipeg’s Victoria Hospital. Dad was Vice President Industrial Relations for Canada Safeway. He was a skilful negotiator, so much so that when his hair turned silver, the union negotiators began calling him the Silver Fox. They always knew, however, that they could trust his word. Several of his former “adversaries” were at the Celebration, even though they had all retired many years ago. Quite a tribute!
Understandably, there were moments that were difficult to get through. Both my brother and I found it helpful to practice those parts ahead of time. By practicing difficult passages over and over, you work through the intensity of emotion on your own until you can present them in public. It doesn’t make them any less genuine. At the Celebrations, all Rick or I needed was a pause and a deep breath.
Following the presentations, we encouraged people to stay and eat and socialize. If Dad was about anything, he was about socializing and having a good time. We held to his example.
I think a less formal farewell such as our family held is becoming more popular. Rick and I followed no structure other than what we felt would be appropriate. We have heard many comments on how genuine and even enjoyable both events were. I will always be glad that I had an opportunity to speak my respect and appreciation for my parents’ lives.
Whatever your challenges, you have the potential to stand tall, glowing with the knowledge that you’re a worthy, valuable human being. That’s what’s happening for a group of young women I met nearly two years ago. They are all people who are supported by Community Living, an organization which helps connect people with intellectual disabilities into their community so that they can participate and be included as rightful citizens.
Community Living in Peterborough, Ontario received funding through a project initiated by the Ministry of the Status of Women Canada. Combining that project with the desire to raise CLP’s profile in the community, the Director of Operations, Barb Hiland, decided to embark on a series of public presentations in which women with intellectual disabilities would speak about themselves and their experiences and, ultimately, conduct presentations to the public about issues pertaining to women living with intellectual disabilities. Knowing there would be training required, Barb hired me to spend four coaching sessions with these young women. In Use Your Gifts, I wrote about how inspiring it was to work with these enthusiastic students.
Eight young women from the group carried on to become “Ambassadors” and leaders for the Status of Women and Community Living Peterborough. Take a look at some of their accomplishments. (What follows are not their real names.) Jenny gave a presentation at a Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, speaking clearly and seriously; Cathy thanked a crowd of over 600 people at a fund raising activity. Christie won the Youth Award at Community Living Peterborough’s AGM for her contributions to increase awareness of women’s issues. Maggie speaks so well that she volunteered to do an interview for the local TV station. The interview publicized a Community Living event to which she donated one of her paintings. This week, Maggie has a photo shoot with a provincial magazine for an article on accessibility. She was chosen as a model from many across the province and will be paid significantly for her time.
Barb tells me that Linda is now a member of Community Living Peterborough’s Board of Directors and a member of People First, a self-advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities. Barb has no doubt that she will be President of the Peterborough Chapter some day. She is on too many committees to remember, and she just shines!
These eight young women have conducted presentations all over the community – over 40 and counting! They carry their heads high and have all the confidence in the world to speak up to have others hear their voices. They are now mentoring another eight women to follow in their footsteps.
Meeting with the PM
Recently I received an email from Barb Hiland to update me on the latest accomplishments of my public speaking students. Barb said, “As the pinnacle of our goals, we hoped to go to Ottawa and see the Prime Minister to thank him for the funding and to tell him about all of the personal accomplishments these women have made to our community.” That dream came true in May of 2012, when four of the eight young women were well received by Prime Minister Steven Harper, as well as the Minister for the Status of Women, Rona Ambrose, and Peterborough’s MP, Dean Del Mastro. I have on my computer screen some photos of the event. The photo above is the official photo. I wish I could share them all with you, but I don’t have permission to publicize them. The one that particularly gives me goose bumps is of tall, willowy Jenny, formerly so shy, standing at full height, shaking hands firmly with the Prime Minster of Canada, and looking him squarely in the eye. What a transformation!
Training = Growth
Barb writes, “All the women have done exceptionally well. Their former teachers are ‘stunned’ at their growth and they never envisioned such a positive future for them. I think it was critical to have you come so early in the Project and teach the group about public speaking and the skills they needed to develop. It was our most intense topic for training, but well worth the investment. It had a huge impact on the young women’s development and ultimately, their success. Public speaking training instilled them with confidence, and as a result, the sky is the limit for their success.”
Do you find it challenging to speak in front of a group? When I think of the challenges these young women have overcome, I realize that the only thing that holds us back is what’s in our head. When we change our thinking, truly, the sky’s the limit!
“My voice shakes when I first begin to speak! It’s so embarrassing! How can I stop that?” Lots of people have this experience at the beginning of their presentation, so if you’re among them, it may help to realize that you are certainly not alone. Here are a few strategies that may help you deal with this situation.
- Ignore it. Bear in mind that you never look or sound as nervous to your audience as you feel. In my early days of classical singing training, whenever I stood up to sing, one arm would go completely numb. I knew that the audience didn’t know that, so I just held up one hand with the other hand, pretended it wasn’t happening and carried on until the sensation went away. What else could I do?
- Focus on the audience. If your voice steadies as you get further into your talk, the initial shakiness is probably because of a little too much adrenaline in your system. The more you stay focused on “How can I make this the best possible experience for the audience?” rather than on concern for what they are thinking of you, the more your butterflies will stay at a manageable level.
- Try vocal warm-ups. Starting cold invites a shaky beginning. Think of how carefully athletes warm up before a competition. Like any muscle, your voice needs to warm up before the main event. If you sing with a choir or if you’ve had singing training, do the same vocal exercises you use to prepare for rehearsals or a performance. If you don’t know any, ask a singer, choir director or voice coach to show you a few exercises. Or just sing. If you don’t sing, practice your speech out loud a few minutes before your presentation. Whatever option you choose, warming up your vocal muscles ahead of time will take you into your presentation with a firmer, steadier voice.
- Breathe. Pay special attention to your breathing and make sure you have a good cushion of air for your voice to ride on. Any musician who makes music by blowing into an instrument must learn to breathe efficiently. So must singers, and so must speakers. Most people who have not had breathing training tend to breathe only from the upper part of their chest. Since the larger part of your lungs is the bottom half, this tendency means you’re not filling up your tank of air. If you’re only receiving a fraction of the air you should be getting, you’re not adequately supporting your voice. To fill your lungs completely, you need to breathe from your diaphragm and keep your chest quiet. Ask a singer or vocal coach to show you diaphragm breathing. Other disciplines that can teach you correct breathing are yoga or Tai Chi.
Never let yourself run completely out of air. Allow yourself time to pause and fill your lungs. Your audience won’t stop listening just because you pause to breathe. Remember that pauses in speaking are good!
- Be well prepared. As with any type of performance, the process of improvement begins long before the actual event. Thorough preparation is one of the most steadying strategies you can do. Know your topic in depth. Sort out well in advance how much information you will share with the audience – no more than three points with a maximum of three examples or stories to illustrate them. Think it through and then talk it through. Practice, over and over. Your resulting mental clarity will give you confidence and help steady your voice.
As you get rolling in your talk, your butterflies will subside and your voice will settle down. A speaking event is about the audience, not the speaker. If you keep your focus on giving value to your listeners and on developing a relationship with them, they will sense that you have your priorities in the right place. You’ll find that your audience is a lot more understanding and uncritical than you thought. They won’t mind if your voice starts out a little shaky. Just breathe deeply and carry on. After all, what else can you do?
Who needs public speaking training? Everybody. Because everybody speaks. Even people who usually work on their own, like scientists, artists or accountants, speak to others at some point. Whether you’re in business, government or a profession, your most valuable tool for success is your ability to communicate effectively. Why? Because effective communication isn’t only about choosing accurate words to express your ideas, it’s about creating the desired perception in your listener’s mind, because it’s perceptions, not just information, that govern people’s actions.
Perceptions govern behaviour
We behave toward one another according to how we perceive one another. Think about how your own responses to a person vary according to whether you perceive him or her to be honest or dishonest, competent or incompetent, friendly or cold. Your perception of that person, positive or negative, will strongly affect your choices and decisions where that person is concerned. Effective speaking is about developing a rapport with your listeners, so that they, in turn, have a positive perception of you and what you’re saying. Their perception of you will determine their degree of receptivity to your message.
Scientists have learned, believe it or not, that our perceptions are primarily formed by first impressions and by feelings, how we feel about one another. So isn’t it in every speaker’s best interest to know how to create a great first impression and how to generate positive feelings in the people they’re speaking to? What we’re really talking about here is having not just an intellectual connection with our listeners, but an emotional connection, a human-to-human, heart connection.
However, your listeners are not going to generate that feeling of emotional connection with you on their own – unless it’s your Mom! The speaker has to give the listener something to feel connected to. The speaker has to show some feeling, some genuine emotion. Yet, showing emotion seems to be one of the hardest things for speakers to do!
Colourless is boring
Tell me this: what’s the most boring element in a boring presentation? You said, “Monotonous voice,” didn’t you? Of course you did! Why? Why is a monotonous voice so boring? Because there’s no colour, no feeling. There’s nothing for the audience to feel connected to. You can’t have an emotional connection with someone who shows no emotion. You can’t have a heart connection with someone who appears to have no heart! Speakers who dampen down their emotional expression end up with a flat, colourless, monotonous voice. They not only ensure that their presentation will be deadly dull, they eliminate any possibility of developing rapport with their audience, thereby missing the opportunity to create a positive perception in their listener’s mind.
Rapport is first
I’m not saying you should be bouncing off the walls, but I am saying that energy, enthusiasm and genuine emotion create rapport. What so many speakers don’t realize is that showing feeling doesn’t make them look foolish. It makes them interesting, colourful and approachable. No matter what you’re talking about, your first job as a speaker is to develop a human-to-human rapport with your listeners so that they will have a positive perception of you and what you’re saying. Only when your listeners have that positive perception will they truly be receptive to the information you want to communicate.