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Public Speaking Know How
Public Speaking Know How
There are days and sometimes weeks, especially during a worldwide pandemic, that are completely devoid of excitement, passion, and enthusiasm. One day is the same as the next. The routine of waking, showering, dressing, working, exercising, eating, sleeping, never changes. The highlight of the week may be a virtual tour through the Smithsonian Institute, watching a concert online, or ordering take-out from your favorite restaurant. Same exercise, different day.
Let's take an inventory.
Uno - Traveling is ill-advised. The state of Kentucky is under a travel advisory that asks Kentuckians to self-quarantine for 14 days after visiting states with positive coronavirus testing equal to or greater than 15%.
Dos - The current guidance for social gatherings stands at 10 or fewer people. Recovered COVID-19 patients have shared war stories about attending a family wedding or funeral and sitting next to the guy that spread CoV-2.
Tres - Mass gatherings are still 'hauci fuera' as my cousin would say. So, here we sit in a bubble without travel, social gatherings, or ‘live’ entertainment. Today’s emoji is screaming ‘find the passion for the passionless.’
If I were approached and asked to speak about my infant website, I’d be super pumped. It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about anything. Summer pushed me to the brink and I needed a critical thinking task. Not just ‘busy work’ or something to occupy my time, I needed to wake my brain. Starting WKY Community Living did that and more.
How it began.
I became a ‘news junkie’ after working for the local newspaper. I became interested in ‘the news’ after my high school journalism class. Most of my general education requirements were fulfilled prior to my senior year. The only courses left were English and a couple of electives. Journalism sounded fun and the teacher was cool. My teacher, Ms. Vicki Russell was also the advisor for The Tilghman Bell and once a year she invited the journalism class to participate in a single issue of ‘The Bell.’
For my contribution, I sketched a cartoon with a funny headline. Once submitted, it was accepted and printed. Though my submission seemed small and insignificant, it was my ‘wake up call’ to declare a major in journalism.
After high school, I attended Murray State University majoring in broadcast journalism. After completing my undergraduate degree, I continued my education and received a Masters Degree in Organizational Communications.
My first career job was at a local radio station as a reporter and disc jockey. After a few months of struggling financially, I was recruited into sales...my lifelong occupation.
After years of suppressing my passion, it reignited. I started writing for a small newspaper group and over the next several months ‘took a stab’ at creating a website. Writing my thoughts down on paper has been one of the most fulfilling challenges of my professional career. It’s a game changer.
It’s in these life exercises we get permission to explore new opportunities or passions. To choreograph a life left on the stage after the lights have dimmed. Developing an impassioned speech, requires turning the lights back on. Writing about what interests you instead of playing it safe.
In previous articles, I’ve discussed giving speeches on topics that are familiar and I still advocate this approach. However, if you want to light a new fire, choose topics that spark interest for yourself and your audience.
COVID-19 has kept us home-bound, disconnected, and without adventures. It’s time to start thinking post-CoV-2.
For a start, research foreign lands and find out how South Africans or other cultures live their lives and plan a trip. If you want to further your education but don’t want to go into debt doing it, find out how joining the military could be the answer to college tuition fees. Research and investigation will take an ordinary topic to the extraordinary.
Before each class, I start by discussing current events. Students are busy with work, studies, home life...each requiring big chunks of an already jam-packed day. There’s limited time to scroll through multitudes of news apps, read the newspaper, or watch television news. Part of my job is to help get the conversation started and keep students engaged.
As a public speaker, it’s important to include novel (current) information in your speeches. Unless you’re speaking about the Civil War or other historical events, information that’s more than a decade old is considered irrelevant and untimely. Information such as election 2020 and CoV-2 are considered novel and timely. Be forewarned, topics like COVID-19 are ever-changing and it’s your job to stay on top of new information.
For example, this past week government officials released new protocols on testing for the COVID-19 as well as admitting to embellishing the effectiveness of convalescent plasma therapy as a treatment for CoV-2. If you’re giving a speech on subjects that are evolving, be prepared to update.
If your goal is to find subject matter that includes an emotional element, take a self-inventory. A time of reflection of who we are sometimes is a necessary first step.
For instance, we are born into a value system, one of which we had no control over. It’s those systems that assist in shaping our lives. Take an inventory of childhood experiences including the environment, financial situation, health, friends and family, all those nuances that helped mold your world view.
Though we are born into one value system, as we age and become free thinkers, we get to choose to either keep those values thrust upon us at birth or create new ones.
Our personal values or core values are the foundation and navigation system for our life. We begin to form opinions on subjects like the death penalty and abortion. We begin to associate with like-minded people by joining political parties, group memberships, or religious institutions. Speeches that include our personal values give the audience a glimpse inside the speaker’s sentiments. Being able to speak openly and honestly about things that make us tick is of great value to the speaker and the audience.
Another option for giving edgy, passionate speeches are to choose topics based on our hobbies, special interests or charity work. These subjects are action-oriented and provide good energy. Topics that explore outside interests can be extremely passionate. If you can do it, you can say it.
Being a public speaker goes beyond ‘showing up and throwing up’. You may not even know you’re living a life full of interesting content that needs to be shared with the world, colleagues, or the classroom. Everybody has a story, be sure you tell yours.
If you’re a person that’s interested in animation or has watched any of the Looney Tunes cartoons, you may recall a phenomenon known as the ‘silhouette of passage.' In classic cartoons like Road Runner, Daffy Duck, or Tom and Jerry, sometimes you’ll see one of the characters run directly through a wall, a rock, or any solid surface leaving behind a silhouette. The cookie-cutter replica of the cartoon character is suspended in time and space. The sole purpose of the extreme act is to escape or exit as quickly as possible from a situation initiated by cowardice or fear.
We have a choice to make when it comes to facing our fears. Do we want to emulate a cartoon character that runs through walls to escape our fears or do we want to face our fears and walk through an open door, a door that leads to opportunity and advancement? If we make the choice to let fear ‘rule the day,’ it can take away our joy, our voice, and our meaningful moments. If we choose to ‘rule the fear’, we find our voice for the voiceless and our moments in time.
“If you become frightened, instead become inspired” is a way to take the power back. The power to change the world or at the very least, have our voices heard. The potential to change or alter the course of history may not come to fruition because of our deep-rooted fears. Be the one that takes action instead of the one that ‘door dashes’ relying on someone else to make the move.
Performance anxiety is real, there’s no denying it. There are politicians, performing artists, celebrities, and ordinary people that admittedly have extreme stage fright. Not the kind of fear that’s experienced a few minutes prior to performing but the debilitating terror that causes a person to leave the funny cartoon imprint in the wall .
Adele is one such artist that admits to being so terrified of performing in front of an audience while at her own concert, she once bolted for the nearest fire exit leaving her audience in the dust. She said she’s never at ease on stage and doesn’t feel relief until after the curtain has dropped.
Your body has physical reactions to fear. Emotions associated with intense fear can be paralyzing, numbing, and harmful. The crippling effects of a person with uncontrolled fear, can be felt throughout the entire body. What Adele experienced was the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome. She could either stay and face the fear or she could escape it. No performer can continue under such conditions. Soon, it becomes necessary to find solutions or stop doing what you’re doing.
On the upside, small amounts of nervousness can energize a performance. Normal physiological reactions to fear include: queasy stomach, rapid pulse, sweaty palms, shaky voice, and tense muscles. The audience doesn't know you’re nervous unless you tell them. Sometimes, these types of physical reactions enhance our speaking experience. We can turn negative energy into positive energy. A little nervousness shows you care about the outcome, that you’re vested.
Barbra Streisand is an entertainer that didn’t perform in front of an audience for 27 years because of fear. She attributes her stage fright to a performance in 1967 when she forgot the words to a song. The experience was too embarrassing to overcome so she just quit. That one show kept her from doing the one thing she did best for almost three decades.
When teaching students ‘the art of public speaking’, I share personal stories about performance anxiety. I don’t remember having much fear when I was younger. I held lead roles in school plays and sang solos in the church choir and really enjoyed the audience’ reaction. It wasn’t until I got older, that the fear started to creep into my performances.
Participating in piano competitions might have been the beginning of the end. Being judged on one’s piano skills can be very hard on young musicians. The pomp and circumstance is quite different from many judging contests. In Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice.’ young women were admired for their ability to play Piano Forte. By playing well, a woman was viewed as more valuable and desirable by society and potential suitors. Being your best at this particular skill dates back to the 1800's.
The visualization of the piano competition is as clear to me today as it was many years ago. The image of gliding onto the stage while approaching the ominous Steinway Baby Grand Piano was intimidating. All eyes were focused on me as I slid into position on the piano bench. After taking a deep breath, I lifted my hands so they hovered over the keyboard. My palms remained rounded and my fingertips barely brushed the keys until it was time to play the first chord. The hope was for a superior rating. If achieved, a grand feat had been accomplished.
Slowly, the anxiety began to seep into my vocal performances. I remember having a rolling stomach and nausea before going on stage for a solo performance wondering which end was going to blow.
The nail in the coffin was the Miss MSU pageant at Murray State University. Somewhere in the middle of my talent, I forgot the words to my song. The humiliation of that experience remained imprinted in my mind for a while. After that, performances were few and far between and eventually stopped.
In the business world, formal presentations play a big role in career success. If you’re ambitious and have plans to climb the corporate ladder, being a polished communicator is essential. Small group presentations were palpable, it was the large groups that gave me an out-of-body experience. To conquer my fear, I decided to become a public speaking instructor. I jumped right out of the fire into the frying pan.
It was an exercise in dedication and commitment. I knew that by learning the tricks of the trade and becoming more knowledgeable on the science of public speaking, the art of public speaking would soon follow.
I was inspired to do something positive about my fears. I wanted ‘the joy’ and limitless career potential associated with overcoming performance anxiety. By learning strategies and techniques, I was able not only to conquer my fears but thrive.
Any person wanting to overcome the fear of public speaking, should turn fear on its ear. Inspire instead of perspire. Embrace the ‘new-found’ freedom of the power of the spoken word. There’s so much to teach and so little time. My goal is to share all that I know with those that want to learn and achieve their dreams. Practice, prepare, and polish (the three p’s) the art of public speaking and be ready for whatever life throws your way.
Recalling the scene from the ‘Pants Alternative’ episode on The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon wins the Chancellor’s Award for Science and is asked by Chancellor Morton to give a speech. Sheldon has spoken in small groups but not groups large enough to stampede him. He needs to overcome his fear of public speaking, and the gang is all up for helping him deal with his anxieties.
Penny suggests a new suit to ‘dress for success’, Leonard tries to psychoanalyze his fears, Raj performs a meditation exercise, Howard pretends to care, all nice tries, but nothing seems to work.
While at the banquet, Sheldon is very nervous and Penny suggests he drink a glass of wine, and then another, and another, all in an effort to loosen him up. The liquid confidence gives a whole new meaning to imagining the audience in their underwear but this time the speaker is without pants.
Neither alcohol nor imagining the audience in their underwear helps much when trying to overcome the fear of public speaking. Some have been told to avoid eye contact with the audience, ‘just look over their heads’ they say, ‘the audience won’t know the difference,’ says another. This little trick doesn’t help either.
The best way to overcome anxiety as a public speaker is to get experience. It’s probably a solution many have heard before. Just the idea of having to get up in front of people time and time again in order to overcome speaker anxiety is mortifying.
When in college, most students are required to take a public speaking class. Advisors encourage students to ‘get it over with...go ahead and take the class so it’s out of the way.’ Remembering the years as a freshman in college and being told to ‘get it over with’ sounded like telling the parents you wrecked the car.
Public Speaking class is one of those opportunities to get experience in front of a large group of people. Unfortunately, the number of times a person will engage in an ‘actual speaking experience’ won’t get the job done. It takes months and months of practice to overcome the fear of speaking in front of an audience. The question is, what to do in the short-term.
The best advice that should be offered to any public speaking student, business professional or reluctant speaker (person with an incredible story to tell) is to talk about what you know.
If asked to get up in front of a group to speak as a student, professional, or reluctant speaker, think about what’s available ‘in the wheelhouse of experience.’ As a student, credibility will need to be established through extra research, practice and polishing the delivery but as a professional or someone with first-hand knowledge on a topic, there’s a certain amount of credibility already established with the audience (pre-speech or initial credibility) without a word being said.
If the speaker concentrates on what they know, the anxieties should already feel less invasive. All the negative talk and self-doubt will begin to dissipate and confidence levels will rise.
The speaker is having a conversation with the audience on information that’s familiar and easy. There’s no trying to impress the audience with a verbose vocabulary or using clever metaphors, it’s painting a picture of your experiences with familiar details. The more you narrow down the topic, be specific, and share personal stories, the more the audience will engage. Choose any subject and break it down into chewable pieces with splashes of color and good ole fashioned storytelling.
There’s nothing extra special required of the speaker. No tricks or hypothetical stories. Try to give the audience your best. Don’t be afraid to look them directly in the eye. Find the friendly faces in the crowd and focus on them. Granted, scan the room but find those with eyes on you, the speaker. There’s no greater feeling as a public speaker to make good eye contact with the audience and know your topic matters to them as well as to you.
Definitely avoid alcohol while giving a speech. It seems like a no-brainer to discuss leaving the booze until after the speech is completed but there will always be those Penny’s. Those that are trying to be helpful but fail miserably. Alcohol is a depressant to the Central Nervous System (CNS). The first drink may feel like a ‘pick-me-up’ but continued drinking will slow everything down from altered speech, brain fog, dulled hearing, weakened muscles, all negative effects for the effective public speaker.
Though Sheldon Cooper got the nerve to head to the podium and give his acceptance speech, the next morning he woke up without his pants and shamefully aware of the YouTube video streaming around the world of his ‘dark side of the moon’ show and tell.