My first memory of public speaking was in the fourth grade. I was asked to present some topic that I can’t even recall in front of a class of about twenty students. What I remember is the heat running up to my face and head, and the heart palpitations that caused greater tension and fear as I walked to the front of the room. After what I remember to be a dreadful display of public speaking, I became disoriented. I walked down the wrong aisle and sat down in someone else’s seat.
This frightful performance was followed a few years later as I awaited my turn to present to my seventh-grade class. I misread the ending of a classmate’s presentation and prematurely went to the front of the room. Not knowing what to do, I sat frozen sitting on the desk beside her while she spent the next five minutes finishing her thoughts. I was dumbfounded, and could only hope the entire class could not see the panic running through me for my mistake, all the while dreading the embarrassing performance to come.
I could go on with many other stories that show my own failure in the public forum. Instead of focusing on the paralyzing potential of the public speaking world in this book, I will share with you the observations and lessons that have taught me to be a confident and successful speaker. I want to teach you how to change that fear that freezes so many of us and turn it into positive energy so that you can not only survive a public-speaking experience, but can gain the confidence to want to share your message with others.
Public-speaking fear emerges early on, as childhood inhibitions slowly turn to hesitation and angst. We’ll discuss some of these sources of stage fright shortly. We each have our individual reasons for why stepping in front of a group of people becomes so daunting. I know firsthand the physical and mental anguish of stepping into a public forum when my words became gibberish and my thoughts left my mind. I have had to work hard to gain control of my faculties to be able to successfully share thoughts, feelings, and stories in such a way that people want to listen to me. Shockingly, I can’t wait to do it now. This learned confidence has made me successful personally and professionally.
As a public speaker and author, I have taken the lessons and observations that have worked for me and turned them into practical tips that speakers at all levels can use. My approach teaches hands-on, realistic applications that can be implemented right away. I can’t say that it’s not as hard as it looks to stand in front of a group of people, but I can say that implementing the information in this book will make the experience easier, and—believe it or not—even enjoyable.
In this age of headline news and information overload, who has time to read a book on public speaking? We decide we will work on these skills later, when we have more time. Maybe simply avoiding the topic will somehow make the fear go away. Be aware: it is not a matter of if you will have to speak in public; it is a matter of when. Will you have to give a Thanksgiving dinner toast? Will you have to make a cold sale to a new potential client? Do you have a burning question as an audience member, but are too scared to ask it? Are you sitting at a cocktail party or at a business networking event where you don’t know anyone and are paralyzed against a wall?
There are plenty of books on this subject, ranging from an academic approach diagnosing physical and mental barriers that cause stage fright to guidance on becoming a professional speaker. This book won’t show you how to perform academic research on what’s going on in our body and head, or how to break into the speaking profession. I realize that everyone’s motives for improvement will vary. My intentions are to provide speakers of all levels with the foundation to give them the courage to take action to develop and grow. The fact that you picked up this book is a good indicator that you want to improve.
My approach is straightforward. Let me intentionally repeat myself: my approach is straightforward. Let’s break down the fundamentals of practical public speaking. You will be ahead of the game if you take nothing more out of this book than the following:
- Effective public speaking is more about confidence than communication skills.
- Public speaking is more than a lectern, podium, or microphone; it is everywhere.
- The ability to speak publicly is not as hard as you may imagine—the hardest part is taking the first action steps.
- Public speaking is a learned skill that must continually be developed.
- Your own success, both personal and professional, is directly related to your ability to communicate effectively.
These fundamentals will permeate the suggestions and recommendations throughout this book.
Most people I have coached through public speaking already have some communication skills. Skill levels vary by individual. Many of them can have what seems like a normal conversation in person or over the phone, until they hear the phrase “public speaking.” I have seen a roomful of people freeze in horror when they are asked to step up front to provide a one-minute introduction. Here is a key lesson: speak of something that you know or that relates to you. Whether you are asked to give a quick introduction or a full keynote speech, integrate familiar stories into the presentation. Why? Because you know yourself better than anyone else does, which should make you more comfortable. This fact alone should give you a small dose of confidence that you know what will be coming out of your mouth next.
Although the majority of references in this book involve public speaking, many of the road blocks to successful speaking are not about the speaking portion of communication at all. We can all improve our ability to formulate a thought and then express it; however, a large hurdle people run into is confidence. How can you gain confidence? Having someone tell you that you need to increase your confidence is like having someone tell you to relax when you are tense. It’s not easy, but there are specific steps we can take to become more confident.
Confidence can be gained through preparation, practice, and repetition. The fact that you are familiar with the material you are about to present should be a powerful boost. Every time you do some form of public speaking, a little bit of discomfort or anxiety goes away. Look for small wins. You may not notice the gains immediately, and the discomfort may not go away completely, but you will start to realize that you are improving. If you want proof, simply videotape yourself for a week. Give a short prepared speech (length is not relevant). Tape the presentation each day for a week. I can promise you that you will see improvements that will bring a smile to your face. Imagine taking that feeling over weeks and months and years. Find ways to knock down your personal barriers one step at a time, and turn your uncomfortable situations into manageable situations that will result in greater confidence.
Not everyone is scrambling to jump behind a lectern (unless it’s to hide) or command a stage to extend a message. Have you ever run into someone in the hall at work? Have you ever been interviewed? Have you ever been in a business presentation where you were asked a question and needed a quick response? Everyday situations surround us where, if we had confidence in ourselves, we could turn our fear into success. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can avoid public communication. Your success is often directly aligned with your ability to confidently present yourself.
It is obviously a fact that we are surrounded with everyday interactions that can change the perceptions we have about ourselves, and the perceptions other people have about us. Imagine taking action on your desire to improve your confidence; you can do anything you set your sights on. You can be the person, communicator, and leader you want to be. Your improved confidence and skills can translate into promotions, better interpersonal relationships, or just about any other goals you’ve set.
As someone constantly on the go with work and life, I have often felt I didn’t have the time to address my public speaking shortcomings. I was too busy in the daily grind to lift my head up enough to see that if I improved my communication skills and confidence, I could improve other things like my leadership and time-management skills. For example, when I managed a team of about fifteen people, I constantly found myself answering the same questions over and over, or repeating myself. I learned to confidently convey messages and expectations that were clear, concise, and actionable. Guess what? I found myself saving time by not repeating myself, and more importantly, started to see people taking the actions to be autonomous because they started to believe in themselves. I began to believe that I had the ability to inspire others.
Improving yourself is not as hard as you think. The fact that you want to improve is a huge step. I chose to join Toastmasters International. Toastmasters is a proven method to improve communication and leadership skills with approximately 270,000 members in 13,000 clubs worldwide. Their mission statement reads:
“The mission of a Toastmasters club is to provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment in which every individual member has the opportunity to develop oral communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.”
Joining Toastmasters is not a prerequisite or the only way to improve public-speaking skills, but it is a methodical approach to self-paced learning in an encouraging environment.
Before you start your journey, have a goal in mind. Obviously this goal will evolve, but you need a starting point. When you reach this goal, set another, slightly higher goal. For example, if you simply want to confidently read a story to kids in the library, then keep working towards it. You can start reading in front of a mirror to yourself. Once you are comfortable, ask family and friends to listen to you. After you are comfortable with them, then you can go to the library, ready to read to the kids. You are surrounded with opportunities; you simply have to cross the threshold.
Crossing the threshold to take action is hard only if you are holding yourself back. I worked with an individual to improve her confidence level in order to be able to lead her team of twenty people in a daily morning meeting. When I suggested joining Toastmasters, she said she’d been thinking about it for a long time. The next natural question was, “Why not join now?” I heard the same excuses and comments I hear far too often: I don’t have the time, I need to work it into my schedule, or I have it on my to-do list. That to-do list is not getting any shorter, nor is it getting enough action. I gently pressed on to say that the improvement happens only when the person is ready to take the action to improve. Her completed Toastmasters application was on my desk a couple of hours later. She is now on her way to becoming more successful.
These practical tips are intended to be a reference guide for you. This book isn’t about staying ahead of the curve with what’s hot (I like to call it flavor-of-the-day business jargon), or creating and using buzz words. This is about the fundamental tools of public speaking. The tools referenced will remain timeless.
I would be naïve to say that communications have not advanced. We have evolved to different communication channels, from rotary phones to “smart phones” where we can “tweet” our own message to hundreds, thousands, or millions of people at once, to webinars as a way of public speaking. What will remain constant, however, is the need to communicate our messages clearly and confidently. No matter what the means of communication are, we still need the critical skills.
Public speaking is a learned skill that can and should be developed, refined, and honed. I do not believe that some people have it and some people don’t. Everyone can pick up these skills. As with most things, the more you do it, the more comfortable and successful you will be. Public speaking is a learned skill that needs nurturing.
Not all chapters in this book will be relevant to your speaking evolution at the same time. However, as you grow with your skills and ability, different chapters will meet your needs and timing. The information will show you how and what to do to make a difference personally and professionally. The tips are easy to follow and easy to implement. Exercising your public-speaking abilities will stimulate your whole being until these abilities become locked into your inner core. Despite what you may have heard, public speaking shouldn’t be scarier than death. Public speaking is a skill waiting to be harnessed before your death. Congratulations. You are about to start your journey to success.
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Down the Chute: A Toboggan Tale (children’s book)
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood