From Stage Fright to Spotlight

by Leslie D. Helm

Do you have a fear of public speaking? Do you get woozy staring out over a sea of eyes and freeze up when it’s time to speak? I do, or at least I used to.

Oh, I could stand before a bunch of people and read a prepared speech. But I always felt awkward. And I know I sounded stilted. I envied people who sounded great on stage: They always seemed to enjoy themselves. And they did a great job of representing their companies.

But public speaking is a skill that not all of us are born with. Fortunately, it can be learned. So a few months ago, I decided it was time to vanquish my fears. I began attending a weekly Toastmasters meeting. I’m sure you’ve heard of the organization. It’s been around for 80 years. But unless you’ve attended a meeting, it’s hard to understand how effective it is at its job: making people better public speakers.

To help boost confidence—the key to good speaking—virtually every member has a speaking role at every meeting. There is the time keeper, who keeps time, and the grammarian, who introduces a new word other speakers are encouraged to use and counts every speaker’s “ums” and “ahs.” There is a brief “inspirational” talk and sometimes a joke. Every meeting also features three speeches, each shorter than seven minutes, followed by assessments of three evaluators who are instructed to be positive and constructive. It’s a safe, nurturing environment in which to learn.

The program was great, and I could feel my fear dissolving with each talk. But I knew it would take months to make progress under this program, and I had a speech coming up in only a few weeks.

For a quick primer, I asked Candace BelAir, a public speaking coach, for a quick lesson. BelAir began by offering this critical insight: 55 percent of how an audience rates a speaker, she says, is based on nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures and posture. She shows a video of the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates with the sound turned off. Compare Kennedy’s relaxed demeanor and his confident smile to Nixon’s tense, sweating face and hunched-over posture and you know who won that debate without listening to a word of it. Another 38 percent of an audience’s response is based on the speaker’s voice: its volume, variation in tone and quality. This was a shocking revelation for me as a writer: Only 7 percent of an audience’s evaluation of the speaker is based on the actual content of the speech!

Fortunately, BelAir had some simple advice: To “open” yourself to the audience, walk out from behind the podium. Don’t cross your arms on your chest or hold your hands behind your back.

With some of the basics done, BelAir had me give a practice speech, which she videoed. Watching myself for the first time, my weaknesses were apparent. I looked restless, shifting my weight and fidgeting with my hands. My eyes tended to sweep across the audience, as if I were looking for someone.

BelAir had me touch my thumb to my forefinger, yoga style, and hold my arms at my side in “home” position. She forced me to make eye contact with her, looking down at my notes only after I had finished making a point. She made me speak from a simple outline with just three bullet points. She underscored the importance of being authentic, confident and enthusiastic. Don’t lecture people, she warned. Talk to them.

My first speech, thanks to my new lessons, was far less traumatic. But I was still stiff. That’s where my continued attendance at Toastmasters kicked in. I progressed through the lesson plan giving one speech that focused on using hand gestures and yet another moving and changing the pitch and volume at which I spoke.

I have yet to do a “table topic.” That’s where you are given a topic and required to present a two-minute speech with no preparation. The best speakers can pick up any theme and have a great time with it. That’s where I want to be, and it’s where anyone can be.

Leslie Helm is the editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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