Part 1 - Delivery
Few speakers, regardless of experience and ability, ever approach a podium completely free from fear. I never have.
The nervous anxiety that builds up just prior to your first utterance can be both terrifying and crippling to your purpose: communicating your message to your audience. The best tactic is to attempt to control anxiety, to harness it, and to make it work for you. The “nervous” condition most speakers experience is accompanied by a surge of adrenalin – which ignites an energy source within them. This bonus energy – properly managed – can aid you in projecting an interesting and dynamic image. The trick is to relieve the nervous anxiety sufficiently so that you are in command. There are several ways you can do this.
No method works for all speakers. You are unique, and you must put together the individual combination of techniques that works for you.
Preparation. If you are well prepared – and know you are – you will be less nervous. There is no substitute for thorough preparation.
Acclimation. Many of my clients report feeling more relaxed at speech time if they arrive at the speaking facility early, and spend twenty or thirty minutes getting themselves accustomed to the environment. This gives them the opportunity to, for instance, try the podium for height, and to check out the room’s physical features.
Another interesting benefit reported by speakers who make a practice of arriving early is the opportunity to watch the audience as they arrive. Many have told me that greeting listeners as they enter the room is less intimidating than facing an already-assembled crowd “cold-turkey.” I usually try to arrive early, because I find it allows me the opportunity to mingle a bit, and to fine-tune my audience analysis (discussed later).
Diaphragmatic Abdominal Breathing. Breathing exercises help many speakers control nervous anxiety. It helped me overcome my double-edged curse: both being uptight in speaking situations – and a nervous stutterer to boot.
Speaking is a physical process, and therefore, subject to the influence of human emotions. The physical function of breathing diaphragmatically has benefits other than those of relaxation (see Chapter 3, Vocal Considerations).
Scores of diaphragmatic breathing exercises are available. The version I use is the one I find simplest and easiest.
In normal breathing, people inhale and exhale for about the same length of time. That is to say, you probably spend the same amount of time exhaling a breath as you spend inhaling it. That is not true in public speaking. Since you only make sounds while you exhale in speaking, you should take your breath in quickly and exhale it slowly. I have coached many speakers who complain of awkward or jerky delivery – only to learn they were simply running out of air mid-sentence. The simple fact is that more air is required for public speaking, especially considering the extra “umph” required to project throughout a large room. When this need for air is combined with the effects of intense nervousness, sizable difficulties can result.
Diaphragmatic abdominal breathing derives its name from the role the diaphragm plays in the deep breathing process. The diaphragm is the dome-shaped membrane that separates your chest from your abdomen. Its work is normally performed involuntarily, usually during and just after vigorous exercise. However, the diaphragm can be made to perform on command for the practiced speaker. This, in turn, can aid in relieving nervousness.
Here’s how to do it. Standup straight, with one hand over your stomach and the other arm relaxed at your side. Open your mouth wide to allow a large volume of air to flow unrestricted to your lungs; then force your diaphragm to contract by simultaneously inhaling a large volume of air and forcing your stomach out. Exhale slowly. Repeat the process several times.
The air should be taken in and expelled through your mouth, not your nose. To better understand this visually, try it shirtless in front of a mirror (try not to laugh at yourself). As you inhale, your diaphragm will contract, pushing your stomach out in the process. Obviously, if your stomach has just been stuffed with food, this can be uncomfortable. The obvious corollary is: do not eat large amounts just prior to speaking.
I suggest that you not consciously breathe diaphragmatically while speaking, although many professionals do. Do these breathing exercises to limber up before rehearsing and to relax before speaking. With repeated practice, your body will eventually find this technique comfortable in the formal speech delivery process.
A general rule, depending on physical condition, is to perform 8-12 repetitions of this breathing exercise before speaking, both at practice and at the “real” delivery. I frequently escape to the rest room to do mine, where I also take care of last-minute grooming details. Again, the additional benefits of this breathing technique will be discussed later. For now, it can simply be a way to help you relax.
Positive Thinking. I prefer to think of it as a positive attitude. Labels aside, many speakers relieve nervous anxiety by psyching themselves up for the speech. Suffice to say that a negative outlook or complacent attitude about your performance will do little to aid your cause. Believe in yourself and your cause, and project those sincere feelings. Do not ease into the task apologetically, unsure of yourself or your message. If you don’t believe in it, don’t do it.
Physical Movement. You are not a storage battery. Let your nervous energy flow out. Move. Stroll about greeting people before the speech; walk to the rest room or the drinking fountain. Much can be done physically to channel energy during your speech (see Chapter 5). A few speakers tell me that singing a club song or the national anthem along with the audience in the pre-show activities is a great relaxer.
Artificial Courage And Tranquilizers. Do not use alcohol, pills, or anything artificial to relieve tension while you prepare for a speaking engagement. Stories abound of lost causes and ruined careers resulting from this kind of poor judgment. If you’re using medication for an ailment of some sort, ask your physician what effect it may have on your public speaking. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits pilots from consuming alcohol and certain drugs for eight hours prior to flying. This is sound advice for speakers as well. Alcohol and public speaking do not mix.
New Images. Your first speech is not the time to launch the “new improved you,” complete with new hairdo, glasses, wardrobe and personality. The extra burden you cause yourself by self-consciousness will surely distract you, not to mention those in the audience who may know you (see Chapter 10).
A Word About Proper Rest. A person who is well-rested has less nervous anxiety than a person who approaches the podium after a 12-hour business day. Allow yourself sufficient time for your body to rest prior to your speech – an hour or two of uninterrupted sleep or quiet time. Don’t rush from the office to the podium. You will carry too much unnecessary nervous energy with you.
Every veteran speaker has a preferred formula for controlling nervousness. Rookies will soon cultivate their own. My technique is a blend of most of the ones I’ve discussed and, although I’m never completely relaxed, I have survived hundreds of presentations; so will you. Experience will ultimately conquer your nervous anxiety problem.
It may help to keep in mind that the jitters you feel inside are not automatically broadcasted to the audience. Many listeners rave about a speaker’s poise and confidence, without ever realizing the speaker was a flock of fluttering butterflies inside. Because public speaking is feared by many and dreaded by others, most audiences respect you for just getting up and giving it your best. Be confident in your purpose. Don’t let a skeptical audience misinterpret nerves or a lack of self-confidence for a lack of conviction.