I'll steal the intro from a previous article as it seems even more relevant here:
I'm going to burden you with "stuff I've learned" from being a shy pimply redhead kid to a balding nearly-forty reasonably-happy shiraz-guzzling semi-geek who has managed to speak publicly (several times) without fainting or vomiting.
Going over some wedding photos of the happy couple delivering their vows reminded me of speaking publicly in general.
If the thought of public speaking sets your face on fire and not showing up to the occasion at all becomes a serious option, then I share your pain. I was that way not so long ago. Sitting here in the comfort of my home office writing about it with iTunes playing my favourite movie soundtracks as I sip a cappuccino in my tracky-dacks seems laughably easy in comparison.
I wonder if public speaking professionals are the worst ones to give advice to the bog-scared beginner because they've been so comfortable with their craft for so many years that they've likely forgotten what it's really like, if they ever felt it to begin with, to morph into a useless palpitating blob of embarrassment who's normal capacity for rational thought utterly vaporises the moment the attention is on them.
Virtually all of the advice I've read on public speaking recommends having notes at the ready that you can refer to if you get stuck. Unfortunately, even this level of skill was far more advanced than I could manage.
Sadly, being prepared often didn't help because the problem was not what to talk about, it was the aforementioned complete disappearance of the ability to think clearly at all as soon as I was called upon. Knowing ahead of time that my input would be required only made the situation worse because then I had all that extra time beforehand to completely lose my shit, rendering said input even less useful than if I'd just vomited in front of everyone. Having notes to refer to makes no difference when your brain vanishes in a puff of smoke because one still needs to expand those notes into something comprehensible.
Most people probably aren't this bad. But I was, so I can't be the only one.
This, what I like to call disability (no offense intended - that's technically what it is), came to a head during our engagement party. Someone suddenly yelled "speech!" I suddenly thought "the weather in Cuba is probably nice right about now. Seeya!" Again, my attempt at delivering something appropriate to the occasion would've been more successful if I'd written a telegram from Cuba. It was a highly unsatisfactory moment but a personally significant one as I vowed then and there to write my wedding speech immediately.
I did at least wait until the engagement party was over. My wedding wasn't for another year but I had the speech written in a matter of days.
But here's the point. Brief notes were no good to me. I needed everything written down word for word so I knew that if my brain took leave as soon as I stood up and everyone was looking at me, all I had to do was concentrate on the words on the page and simply read one after the other. That seemed do-able. This notion alone gave me confidence. This confidence evidently meant I could relax a little, think more clearly about the actual content, and maybe, heaven forbid, even have a little fun with the delivery.
As I sat down after my very much thought-out speech I, quite unbelievably, was actually reasonably happy with it. Did I just speak in public and not think I totally sucked? I couldn't believe it.
Another important key to my personal success was practising my 'script' in front of someone beforehand. My wife Michelle was the guinea pig and it felt completely weird reading out my wedding speech, clearly designed for a larger audience, to her. (I left out the important bits that were for her, of course.) But that is the point. That weirdness is a major part of speaking publicly and dealing with that one aspect alone was hugely beneficial. If it's weird presenting to one other person in the comfort your lounge room, then you can multiply that weirdness by a thousand in a large echoey room full of attentive eyes burning into you expecting words of wisdom.
A glass of wine didn't hurt during this practise time either.
When standing in front of an expectant crowd, it's easy to feel like you're being judged, and this feeling only adds to the difficulty. But it's important to also remember what it's like to be an audience member. I know when I'm watching (and listening to) someone speak, I'm very forgiving of their performance. Maybe this comes from my own feelings on speaking publicly, but everyone knows that most people hate public speaking and are generally sympathetic to those who are giving it a good crack. If you're at the pants-wetting stage of the process that I was at until recently, then this knowledge probably won't help much, but it's still nice to know.
Being at this point once, it felt like I would never be any good at it and I would simply make every effort to avoid speaking to a crowd if I could help it.
But dammit, part of me also wanted to be better at it so I wouldn't embarrass myself if I was called upon. Then there was a small part of me that loved the challenge of it. This small part battled ferociously with the much larger part that hated public speaking and had been mortified many times in the past by becoming a blubbering mess at the crucially inappropriate moment.
The confidence gained from satisfactorily delivering my wedding speech prompted me to accept an invitation to speak to a paying audience about something I loved: storm photography. This time I wouldn't have a word-for-word script, but I did have a thorough powerpoint presentation that I wrote and knew well, plus I'd be discussing something I'd loved for years and could usually talk about endlessly.
Again, I practised and again, it felt weird. But I absorbed this weirdness knowing it would help when it mattered. At the beginning of my presentation I felt compelled to do the opposite of what I assume many would advise: namely to do your best to not look like a dick. I thought I was probably going to look like a dick for a bit of the presentation anyway and decided that honesty was the best way to go. I mentioned to my audience that I'd never done anything like this before, that I was a bit nervous and would probably reach for my water many times. I think they appreciated this honesty and I believed I scored a few points of tolerance that I might not otherwise have had. Whether they ACTUALLY become more tolerant is irrelevant. The important thing is I FELT that they'd become more tolerant and that gave me more confidence.
By the end of it I was again pretty happy with myself and received much positive feedback and further questions, and an invitation to speak at another upcoming meeting.
Considering where I started with a beetroot for a face and no hope, it's worthwhile mentioning that I've since done a number of presentations and am actually excited by the prospect of possibly doing another, knowing that every public appearance makes me better at it. I now feel that I'm on my way. I'm sure I'd still go to water if called upon unexpectedly, but if prepared, I feel a lot better about the idea.
But the thing that got me started in the first place was writing that wedding speech word for word and practising the delivery in front of someone. This may not work for everyone and may not even be relevant in certain circumstances, but if everything else has failed, then it's worthwhile giving it a try.
And don't forget the glass of wine.
This article was originally written for the Outback City Express newspaper Feb / Mar 2013 edition.
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