Afraid to Speak Up?

Battling the
Public-Speaking Jitters

According to Peter Urs Bender, author of the bestseller Secrets of Power Presentations, the thing we humans fear the most is speaking in public. Close behind on the list of fears is death. (Speaking and dying in front of a group ranks third…)

As frightening as public speaking can be, good oral presentation skills are worth pursuing…Armed with such skills, you will be more likely to seize upon any speaking opportunities that come your way…moreover, you will be more confident (and effective) when you do so. Even experienced public speakers…should put a fresh polish on their presentation skills from time to time.

There are many excellent books on the subject of public speaking. Here are a few tips to get you started, gleaned largely from Bender’s book:

Anatomy of a Good Speech

The ideal after-dinner speech is fifteen minutes long: one and a half minutes for an opener, thirteen minutes for the body, and one minute for a summary at the end.

Strive for a minimum of two points and a maximum of five. A much longer presentation may have up to seven points.

Your extra efforts will pay off if you prepare a good beginning, or "hook" for your speech, to get the audience’s attention. Aim, too, for a powerful ending, perhaps tying everything together with a quote.

Put your most important material in the last portion of your speech, and the second most important material in the first.

Use short words and phrases. Be willing to express a clear point of view, and not just a list of facts: otherwise your speech will be too dry.

If you decide to use humor in your speech, be careful. Any jokes must be tasteful and appropriate for the occasion and the audience. It is not true that every good speech must start with a joke!

Know Your Audience

Research your audience beforehand: background, affiliation, main interest in attending. With preparation you’ll avoid slipups and bond more easily with your audience. An added plus: you will enter the room feeling invigorated rather than intimidated by your audience.

Ask several questions when you are first asked to give a presentation:

  • How long will I speak?

  • Should I thank the person(s) who invited me to talk?

  • Where will I sit before and after my presentation?

  • If I’m not the only speaker, where will my talk fit in?

  • Will the audience contain any special guests?

During your speech, be sure to pay attention to the audience. Watch for people’s expressions and play off of them. Adjust your speech if necessary: good preparation will make it much easier for you to be flexible if necessary!

Easing the Jitters

The name of the game is to be relaxed, comfortable, and prepared. Practice, practice, practice! Try using a friend, or a tape recorder. Listen for filler words ("You know, Uh…Uhhh…Umm.) Dead air, or silence, is better than babbling. Avoid clichés, as well. Even for a short, 2-minute talk, you must take the time and practice to organize your thoughts before you speak.

Dress for success. Wear clean and polished shoes, with heels in good repair. A good rule is to dress the same way as your audience. Try to wear dark blues or red. Stay away from jewelry that might make noise while you speak. Anticipate problems and be prepared: bring an extra pair of nylons, a spare tie in case of spills, etc. Avoid the temptation to wear a new outfit for your speech, nor is this a good day to get a new haircut!

Give yourself lots of time. Don’t set yourself up to arrive out of breath or with clothes and hair all askew. Relax and deep- breathe.

Mingle with guests 10-15 minutes before giving your speech. This will make everyone much more comfortable, you included. During your presentation, spot people you’ve mingled with in the audience, and smile at them from time to time.

Prepare for your own comfort in advance. Have a glass of water and a handkerchief close by as you talk—but not so close that you’re likely to spill! Don’t drink liquor or caffeine, or eat any unfamiliar foods or foods likely to cause headaches, etc., the day of your speech.

While you are giving your talk, remember not to put your hands in your pockets or slouch. Never fidget. Don’t talk on your way to the podium. Giggling is out, too: that tells everyone you are nervous and don’t know what to do about it. Use a watch if it makes you more comfortable, but try to only glance at it once, to see whether you need to wrap things up quickly.

Know what you know. Unclear thoughts remain unclear even when said in public. Have something to say and be prepared to say it. (in other words, if you truly know what you think you will be able to find the words to express it.)

Above all, be positive! Your audience is here because they want to be. Believe in your ability to improve. For better or worse, this will be a learning experience for you.

In General

Use index cards. On the first card, write down the name of the group for which you’re speaking as well as other incidentals. Jitters can make you forget even the obvious! First write your whole speech, then pare it down to essentials for your cards. Don’t break sentences or paragraphs between cards. Use large type, double-spaced and with wide margins. Highlight key words and sentences. Number your cards sequentially, in case they are dropped or accidentally shuffled! Bring extra blank cards for last-minute changes or additions.

If index cards are not suited to the occasion, memorize your speech. If you memorize, make sure also to know the topic well enough that you’ll be able to improvise if you have a memory lapse! Prepare extra material in case you need it. An important point to remember: if you want to look as though you’re speaking spontaneously, you will need much more preparation, not less.

Remember that verbal content accounts for only 7% of your presentation. 38% is vocal (how your voice sounds) and 55% is non-verbal content, Therefore, pay attention to your voice (don’t speak in a monotone!) and use open body language (do not cross your arms or hold your hands in a "fig leaf" position in front of your pelvis.) Remember to make eye contact, and smile! Avoid abrupt gestures, such as grabbing at your collar, ears or nose, or incessantly smoothing your hair.

Breathe slowly. Banish negative thoughts and images. Your extra efforts will be highly rewarded. Remember you are here because you have something to say, and the audience wants to hear it!

Life Guardian, Spring, ‘97

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