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Tips for Public Speaking

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Year after year statistics tell us that we Americans are terrified of public speaking.  Indeed, more people fear public speaking than fear rattlesnakes or death.  Why?  What is it about standing up in front of our peers and presenting that sends us into an illogical panic?  With so many things to be afraid of in this world, why is it that something as harmless as public speaking ranks so high on our list of fears?  The documentary “Speak” attempts to get to the bottom of this question.  It examines our deepest fears – of failure, of humiliation, of being the topic of ridicule. 

Do you remember Caitlin Upton?  She is a beautiful young woman who rocketed to notoriety when she royally botched the interview portion of the Miss Teen USA Pageant.  When asked her thoughts regarding one fifth of Americans not being able to identify the U.S. on a map, her answer was pretty much a garbled string of nonsense that meant absolutely nothing.  Within minutes, Caitlin was a topic of international ridicule.  YouTube videos of Miss Upton have been viewed more than 80 million times.  The situation she found herself in is many of our worst fears.  It’s the stuff of nightmares –standing up in front of a crowd and a mess of cameras, freezing up, embarrassing yourself, and being the subject of every late night comedian and early morning talk show. 

Many of us would rather have a root canal than talk in public, but what do we do when we don’t have a choice?  When the situation in which we find ourselves absolutely requires public speaking?  Cailtin Upton was a Beauty Queen.  Her position required her to stand up in front of a group and answer questions.  While I’m certainly no pageant winner, my job sometimes requires the same and it’s certainly not something I relish.  No matter how well I know my subject, no matter how prepared I feel, there is something about standing up in front of everyone that makes me nervous.  Knowing this about myself, there are some steps I take to help assure I don’t have a Miss Teen USA situation on my hands.

 1)  Humor – A few months ago, I had to give a presentation on social media.  I was using a new presentation software and it was taking a little time to load.  There was no reason to believe the program would fail me.  I had practiced several times.  But in the moment, things were looking a little touch and go.  As people waited for me to get started, I addressed the group by saying – “This is how the world works.  Your Social Media speaker can’t get her computer on.”  Everyone started laughing. When I finally got the presentation loaded, the ice was broken and I was able to address the audience as if we were having a conversation.  In fact, by being a little honest about your fears and injecting a bit of humor into your presentation, you can actually make it a lot more enjoyable for your audience.

 2)  Roll with the Punches – This can sound impossible for those who are afraid of public speaking.  It’s very difficult for me as well.  However, if you consistently remind yourself that the world doesn’t hinge on your presentation, it’s a lot easier to present without freezing up. 

 3)  Dress with the Presentation in Mind – Dress nice.  That’s the easy part.  Dress so you feel confident.  This can be trickier for some than others.  All my life, I have worn my emotions on my sleeve.  As soon as I become the slightest bit nervous, uncomfortable, or anxious, my skin becomes red and blotchy.  It’s very embarrassing.  All through college, I’d give presentations knowing that my arms and neck were probably bright red.  Now, I plan.  I select an outfit ahead of time that will conceal my discomfort without making me too warm.  Just knowing that people won’t be focused on my reddening skin makes me feel better.  You know yourself.  If you are someone who sweats when they get nervous, try to keep cool.  If you are someone who gets headaches, take an Aspirin ahead of time and wear your hair loose. 

 4)  Don’t Complicate Things – I cannot tell you how many times I have seen speakers pour hours into preparing a presentation only to have everything unravel when their video doesn’t play, audio skips, computer locks up, or projector bulb burns out.  Things happen.  And as stated in point 2, you need to be able to roll with the punches.  The show must go on after all.  And, if you know yourself, and know that you will be completely tripped up if your YouTube video won’t play or your audio file doesn’t work, don’t set yourself up for failure.  Simply exclude those elements that could potentially trip you up.

5)  Get there Early – This won’t work in every case, however if you are in a position to arrive a few minutes early and start talking to attendees before the formal beginning of you presentation, you’ll likely feel more comfortable around those same people when you are speaking.

We all know speaking in front of people can be difficult.  It inspires fear or at least a little nervousness in even the most seasoned professional.  Once again though, consider Miss Upton.  Since her incredibly embarrassing mess-up, the pageant contestant went on The Today Show where she was allowed to take another crack at the question.  She has since then appeared on several other television shows.  Consider that, after being the subject of national ridicule, she gave it another go (granted probably with a writer and consultant helping out).    So, no matter how overwhelming the concept of presenting in front of your peers may seem, it’s complexly within your abilities.  Just know yourself and know what makes you nervous so that you can prepare accordingly.  And…worst case scenario, if you slip up, laugh it off and keep going.  Your audience will forgive you…if they even notice.


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