Public Speaking Isn’t Life or Death–It’s Much Worse Than That

Once I was invited to be part of a panel discussion during a conference. The panel went well, and I was ready to go back to the office to finish up some work I had there. As the moderator of the conference closed the panel he said to the group. “We’ll take a fifteen minute break now, and then for the next hour Andy Le Peau will be speaking to us.”

My worst speaking nightmare had come true.

I was stunned. I went up to the moderator, who up until that point had been a good friend, and asked if he was kidding me or if he was serious that I was to speak for the next hour. He assured me that he was quite serious and reminded me that he had asked me about this six months before. After taking about five minutes trying to sort through how such a mistake could have been made, I finally said, “OK, just keep everyone away from me for the next ten minutes,” and I frantically started scribbling some notes.

Virtually everyone in any position of responsibility (and many without) will have to speak in front of a group. No matter how many or how few in the audience, and no matter how many times you’ve spoken, some fear or nervousness is bound to creep in–or maybe charge in. As actor Ken Howard says,

Speaking in public will always entail the possibility of failing in public, and there is no feeling in life quite like that of public humiliation. (That is why, I suspect, most people seem to prefer death.) (p. 22)

So if you have to speak, what can you do to deal with the fear? Over the coming weeks I’ll be offering suggestions for speaking effectively. For the moment, here are some common sense tips for dealing with the fear we will inevitably feel.

* Know Your Audience. Find out as much as you can about who will be there, how many, what they do and don’t know about the topic and what they expect in regard to tone, length of your talk, and level of depth or detail. Let that shape what you have to say and how you say it.

* Be Prepared. Don’t try to wing it. Write out your comments in full. And then practice (but don’t try to memorize it, which can sound stiff). Reduce your full text to brief notes you can have with you when you speak, notes that highlight key words or facts. If you are speaking with a PowerPoint presentation, have hard copy of your notes as backup in case something doesn’t work. And (I don’t say this facetiously), if you are a spiritual person, this would be an excellent time to pray.

* Be Aware of Yourself Physically. Are you tense? Just like a basketball player before a free throw, take a deep breath. If part of your body feels tight, tighten it more and then relax it. You can even do this while sitting on stage waiting to be introduced and no one will know.

*Turn Your Tension into Energy. As Howard also says, “The same anxiety that can immobilize you can also increase your intensity in public” (p. 20). A little bit of tension can be your friend by making you more animated during your presentation.

* Be Yourself. This may seem like the opposite of “Know Your Audience.” But both are needed. While you need to know what is expected, try to provide that in a way that fits with who you are. Otherwise you come off stiff and artificial. Talk about what you care about in a way that interests you and others will find it interesting too.

* Leave Them Wanting More. If you say everything you’ve got to say, you will probably start straying into material that is just not that interesting, and your audience won’t want to hear what you’ve got to say next time you . . .

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

4 thoughts on “Public Speaking Isn’t Life or Death–It’s Much Worse Than That”

  1. Great common-sense tips. To add to your point about PowerPoint – don’t just have notes as backup. Use notes *instead* of reading your PowerPoint. Your audience will thank you!

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