The story of the 1912 Titanic ship—a beautiful ocean vessel that ended in tragedy—fascinated me when I was 14. I was horrified to learn that people had been mostly saved according to their social class. So, when my school’s English speech instructor asked us to choose a topic we cared about, my selection was easy. I conducted research, created note cards, and practiced my speech for weeks.
However, when it was my turn to speak, I walked slowly to the front of the classroom. That walk seemed to take an hour; my hands became clammy, my knees grew weak, and my mouth felt suddenly dry. I do not remember anything I said. I do remember feeling terrified.
Never wanting to feel that way again, I forced myself to try other public speaking opportunities, and when my dad encouraged me to briefly address our congregation about my church camp counselor experiences in the Black Hills, I reluctantly accepted. I eventually joined my high school’s oral interpretation team, which meant public speaking in a competition format. Oral interpretation mostly consisted of reciting memorized content, so that somehow seemed less daunting. While I still didn’t enjoy public speaking, each time grew a little easier.
Fast forward to 2005, when I became the University of Louisiana at Monroe’s media relations director and quickly realized I preferred to place others in front of the media cameras. Lisa Miller, one of ULM’s top administrators, astounded me. No matter the topic, when the camera focused on her, her excitement was contagious, and so she instantly captivated her audience. Inspired by her, and wanting to improve my speaking abilities, I began researching various techniques to calm my nerves. Now, I share what I have learned with university students enrolled in eULM’s public speaking course, and I also discuss effective speaking techniques with my business clients.
Overall, fear of public speaking is America’s biggest phobia—25.3 percent say they fear speaking in front of crowds, according to a recent study published in the Washington Post. This dread outranks fear of surgery, drowning, and a myriad of other potentially life-threatening situations. But, why? When confronted with a threat, such as the thought of speaking poorly in front of a crowd, our bodies assume a fight or flight mode. We experience heart palpitations and other physical responses to our brain’s perceived threats. And, the threat feels very real. We worry about damaging our credibility and our image. When we are anxious, it is difficult to speak with confidence, and we begin to associate public speaking with fear. Eventually, this fear prevents us from seizing public speaking opportunities—opportunities that could advance our careers.
So, I offer these few tips for a successful speech:
- Think about a successful one-on-one conversation you have exchanged with a colleague. While your audience only consisted of one, you clearly communicated your ideas aloud, proving that you are capable of doing so.
- If you are asked to speak about a broad topic, narrow your message to something you feel passionately about. For example, if you are asked to speak about education, speak specifically about why education matters to you and how it has impacted your life. Your audience will connect with your message if they realize your connection.
- Share anecdotes and keep statistics to a minimum. Scientists have analyzed brain activity in response to hearing stories versus hearing statistics. MRIs reveal the brain lights up when absorbing a riveting story. Conversely, interest wanes when the brain receives facts and figures.
- Present a new idea. Our brains are wired to ignore cliché’s and common knowledge. Instead, we desire new information. Your idea does not have to be ground-breaking, but if it is novel in some interesting ways, you will keep your audience’s attention.
- Practice. This can’t be stressed enough. The more we rehearse our speeches, the more comfortable we become with public speaking. Record yourself on your phone and watch the playback. Listen for filler words such as “um” and look for any physical fidgeting.
- Before speaking, practice breathing techniques and assume the “power pose,” coined by Amy Cuddy in her now-famous Ted Talk. These physical practices will calm your body before presentations.
Most of all, it is important to remind yourself that you are knowledgeable and possess something important to contribute. A public speech is much like any other human interaction—it’s about human connection. If you are passionate about your topic and share your passions in a personal way, you will captivate your audience.
Originally published in Bayou Life Magazine.