Posts Tagged ‘public speaking’

Slide shows have done more to reduce the quality of speeches than anything else. They encourage presenters to peak too soon by writing out their entire talk in detail. They chop logic into a series of small bullet points, none of which seem more important than the other. They tempt presenters to read their speech and ignore the audience. But probably their worst offense is that they encourage the tendency of presenters not to move, as though the soles of their shoes were crazy-glued to the spot.

Not that the average presenter needs much encouragement to be motionless. For as many as two-thirds, the purpose of a podium is to give them something to hide behind. For the other third, having found a spot to stand, they barely shift their weight from one leg to another, much less use the space around them effectively.

Why does being motionless matter? Because public speaking is performance. It’s not only performance – obviously, you need something worth saying, too. But unless you can entertain as well, what you have to say is going to be as flat as wine left uncorked in the back of the fridge of a couple of weeks. When you speak in front of an audience, you almost always have space to move, whether a stage or the front of the classroom, so you might as well use it to get your point across.

If you want proof of the importance of movement in speaking, go find a video of Bill Hicks on YouTube. Listen to him first without looking at the video. You’ll probably smile, maybe grin, and think he’s an okay comedian. Then listen while watching the video, and you’ll be wishing you spent more time building up your abs at the gym because you’re laughing so hard. The difference is the way he moves. As funny and as wise as his routines are, they’re not half as funny as the way he moves through the space around him, sometimes with exaggeration, and at others times with the economy of motion of a martial artist.

Very likely, your subject and tone are more serious than Bill Hicks’. But you still have opportunities to use your movement to bring your points across.

The trouble with standing still is that nothing changes. With you rooted on the spot, the audience relaxes, and sinks back in their seats, getting into the routine, and gradually – unless you have more animation in your gestures and voice than the whole of Hayao Miyazaki’s production studio – they stop listening.

By contrast, if you move from the podium to somewhere else, suddenly your audience shifts and pays attention. Chances are, that means they pay more attention to the point you start to make from your new position.

Similarly, when you are impersonal or logical, move to the back of the stage. When you want to connect with your audience on a personal level, move to the front, even down into the aisles (why do you think so many musicians do it?).

Or if there’s a table, sit on top of it when you want to be casual and intimate. When the time comes to be serious, or to emphasize your point, get up. If you are recounting a problem and how you solved it, pace and stop at random spots so that your movements mirror the confusion you are describing, then dart to the white board to jot down a keyword of the solution. You don’t have to move quickly – just move at all. So few speakers do that you’ll automatically have another way of connecting to the audience.

In fact, once you start being aware of the concept, you’ll soon find all sorts of ways you can use movement while you speak. Once, for example, I turned the fact that a college class wanted to be on the other side of the windows on a hot summer morning by moving up and down in front of the windows for much of my lesson, forcing the class to look at me as much as the window. Think a while, and you’ll find other impromptu possibilities.

In the same way, consider how a little choreography can discourage both you and your audience from spending the entire talk looking up at your slides. Leave the stage and face the screen, and you can read it without being obvious. You should also entice some of your audience to watch you instead of staring at your slides.

Sometimes, of course, you won’t have much space. Or, as happened to me when I spoke in Calgary a few years ago with a swollen foot, you might need the podium to keep yourself upright, and going across the stage just isn’t a possibility. Yet even when you can’t move very far, you can still suggest movement by shifts in your posture. In such cases, even a little movement is an improvement over the immobilization that reading your slides to the audience usually encourages.

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Long ago, I lost count of the classes I taught and the talks I’ve given. The number, though, must be in the hundreds. I can remember only a handful in which I wasn’t nervous beforehand – and they were uniformly disastrous. At least for me, anxiety about speaking in public is normal, so over the years I’ve learned to cope with it.

Notice that I said “cope,” not “eliminate” or “reduce.” In my experience, you can’t eliminate or reduce what actors call flop-sweat, and you shouldn’t even try. I strongly believe that nervousness is unchannelled energy, and the trick is contain and direct that energy so that you release it while speaking, and give your talk an extra edge.

How do I turn that anxiety to my advantage? If the class or talk is especially important, and I feel even more nervous than usual, I make sure that I exercise lightly or moderately in the morning. The exercise bleeds off the excess energy, and leaves enough adrenalin and endorphins in my body that I’m awake and alert.

If possible, I like to eat lightly about two hours before I talk. I don’t want to eat too much, because doing so would make me drowsy. Nor do I want to eat so little that I’m thinking about food when I should be watching how my audience is reacting to my words.

I also want to eat healthily. If I eat junk food, then the sugar rush will be leaving me just about the time I speak. Fruit or fruit juices are usually a good choice, I find.

About half an hour before I speak, I prefer to find a room – or at least a corner – where I can review my written or mental notes about what I wish to discuss. Even if the material is as familiar to me as the ring on my finger, reviewing the notes gives me something to do and reduces any fear that I don’t know the material. Besides, I may discover something new to say that enhances my presentation.

If I am more nervous than usual, a short, slow walk helps. During the walk, I concentrate on breathing regularly, and mentally go over my topic. If possible, I try not to speak to anyone. If talking is unavoidable, I’ll be friendly, but keep my responses to a minimum.

Just before I enter the room where I’ll be talking, I may also do some breathing and visualization exercises. One exercise that has helped for years is to count ten deep, slow breaths, imagining each one descending to my navel and sitting there. Then I take another ten breaths, imagining as I exhale that each breath expands from my navel through my torso and down my arms and legs.

In another exercise, I repeatedly imagine myself drawing a line from my forehead to my navel, my breath following the line. If I am alone, my hand may actually trace the line in the air, almost as though I am closing a zipper.

Both these exercises help to calm me and leave me centered and ready to speak.

Finally, just before I speak, I take a few seconds to look over the audience. This habit convinces me that the audience is not so fearsome as my imagination made it. But I also imagine that all the nervous energy I’ve been struggling to contain expands like a sphere to include the audience and myself – and, with that, I’m ready to begin.

As I talk, now and then I’ll mentally renew the sphere, sometimes imagining smaller ones reaching out to audience members who seem disinterested. Perhaps it’s a selective memory, or the disinterested audience members simply notice that I’m looking at them, but the visualization usually seems to refocus their attention.

Perhaps this routine is part neurosis or superstition. However, for me it works, so I’m not very tempted to tinker with it. I don’t suggest that everyone follow my routine, but I do suggest that people follow their own. And if any of my routine works for anyone else, so much the better. With a little experimentation, you should be able not only to control your nervousness about speaking, but also use that nervousness to help you speak with more energy and confidence.

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