Public Speaking

by Mr. Cheap

My favourite Jerry Seinfeld joke is:

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Like most people, I always *HATED* having to speak in public.  I come by it honestly:  my mother tells a story where she had to give a class presentation in high school and she was so nervous she went to her family doctor and tried to get tranquilizers.

In large part BECAUSE so many people are uncomfortable speaking to a group, it can be a valuable skill in just about any occupation (it’s rare and therefore valued).  My father was middle management at a factory and, within the union and within management, people who could stand in front of a group and yack for a few minutes would often be promoted far beyond their intelligence or ability should have allowed.  A neighbour of ours was always willing to get up in front of a group to give an impromptu speech and despite being lazy he moved up the ranks at the post office (he went from being a letter carrier to travelling around doing training at various regional offices).

If you’re looking for a skill to develop that could help you with your career advancement, without knowing anything more about your situation I’d bet that public speaking would be a good choice (it’d be hard to go wrong with writing or sales either).

I’m not a gifted orator (by any means), but I’ve gone from being petrified at the idea of speaking to a small group to being able to give technical talks to over 100 people.

Step 1:  Realize most people feel the same way you do

I think the first step in developing public speaking skills is to realize that almost everyone is very nervous speaking in public.  It’s not something that you either have or you don’t, it’s a skill that most people who give talks have developed over time.

I’ve given up on learning a second language or a musical instrument.  I’ve tried (and failed) repeatedly at both and I just don’t have the aptitude (or enough interest / dedication).  Conversely I’ve known a large number of people who have dramatically improved in their speaking skills while I’ve known them, despite initial reservations.  I’ve never known anyone who kept working at speaking in public and DIDN’T improve.

Step 2:  Find a place to practice

Unfortunately this is a hands on skill.  You can’t master it by reading about it.  Talk in public every chance you get.  Create chances to speak in public by signing up for drama (if you’re still in school) or auditioning for a play.  If there’s a group in your area, join Toastmasters or the Dale Carnegie public speaking course.

By nature I’m a raging introvert.  In high school I realized that being shy and unwilling to talk to groups would severely hold me back in life, so I acted in the school play one year (2 whole lines baby!) and started a school newspaper (and assembled and managed the staff).  After a year of doing both of these I was more than willing to throw myself in front of a group and say something.

Step 3:  Get feedback

I’m a big believer that to improve at any skill you need feedback (or the ability to accurately evaluate your own performance).  Toastmasters and the Dale Carnegie course both have this feedback built in (and a good director of a play may give some useful feedback).

Step 4:  Accept the nervousness

Realize that for many people (such as myself) speaking in public will always be a fairly nerve-wracking experience.  When I’m presenting to a graduate course (about a dozen people) I get butterflies and have to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes beforehand.  I have been complimented repeatedly on my presentations, so in spite of nervousness, it’s possible to do a good job.  I get SOME satisfaction from giving a decent presentation or talk, but the nervousness doesn’t disappear.  I think it’s good for us to push ourselves outside our comfort zone at times, so this doesn’t prevent me from accepting opportunities to talk in front of a group.

Step 5:  Continually improve

There are always ways to improve at anything you do.  If you’re the best in the world at something, you can still keep getting better at it.  Sometimes you’ll be satisfied to just use the skills you’ve developed (it takes time and effort to improve), but for the things that are really important to you, it’s possible to keep getting better.  The way to do this is to be reflective about your performance, consider ideas for improvement from others or generate ideas for improvement yourself and TEST them.

Are you comfortable speaking in public?  How did you develop this skill if you are?  What is holding you back (besides fear, you chicken 😉 ) if you aren’t?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Writer's Coin

I took a class in public speaking in college and the first session was simply about this fear, which we all had. Practice definitely helped, so that when you’re up there you know what you’re saying inside and out.

But one of the things I found helped the most was being passionate about what you’re talking about. That comes through a lot and counts for a lot too. Even if it’s for work, if you can show why this is important or why it matters to you, others will feel that and you’ll feel more confident up there.

2 Mark

Ironically, I’ve always loved (even go as far as ask for it…) speaking in front of people.
I found out early in my career that, as you mention, this was a great asset to have.
I was a bank dept manager & my boss feared speaking in front of everyone so much that she had asked me to do the presentation for her.
I didn’t get the promotion as you mention but from that day forward, I was her right hand “speaker”.
One thing to always remember is that, by giving your presentation, you’re giving your experience & expertise to everyone in the crowd; that’s something you definitely need to be proud of doing.

3 Ray

Just like everyone else I hated public speaking in school, until I reached University. At university I realized that public speaking is an important skill so I had to find ways to improve it.

I become president of a student club, become involved in non-profit organizations and did a lot of presentations, and I become host of a radio program for several years.

I eventually learned some techniques to make public speaking less fearful and more enjoyable. Now when I have to speak in front of people I am still nervous as before but now I feel more confident and know how to control the emotions. after about 3 minutes on stage I actually start enjoying it.

I have spoken to many who make a living speaking in front of a crowd and even they are nervous, but the trick is in controlling your emotions.

4 Michael James

Excellent post. I agree 100% that public speaking is an important skill that boosts just about any career. In my early 20s I was nervous about speaking in from of just my boss and a few colleagues. In my mid-20s my boss pushed me to talk in front of international audiences of hundreds of people at conferences. This just about killed me with nervousness at first, but as I became more comfortable with public speaking it did wonders for my career.

5 Studenomist

Throughout the entre span of my time in college I have done easily over 20 presentations. To this date I am still not good at but I have improved drastically. I had 2 presentations this past week and have 2 more coming up. What worked for me is:

1. Dress up realy nice so if aything you feel confident.
2. Think of a positve end result when you go up there.
3. Watch your favourite entertainer the day before to try to mimick their performance.
4. Use humor. Honestly I find that every presentation is so boring that it helps to gain the audiences interest if you make them laugh (especially young people).

I am still by no means good at presenting but the last two presentations I have been able to hold the audience in the palm of my hands by making my information as interesting as possible.

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