“The human mind is a wonderful thing—it starts working the moment you are born and it stops as soon as you get up to speak in public.” —Roscoe Drummond
The late newspaper columnist Roscoe Drummond really nailed it. At one time or another we've all had that “mind gone blank” moment or some other temporary affliction when facing an audience—a dry throat, a pounding heart or perhaps just sweaty palms. No wonder public speaking isn't everyone's idea of fun. Hardly. In fact, as Jerry Seinfeld once remarked:
“If it’s true that public speaking is actually the most common fear, even greater than the fear of death, then you figure that at funeral most people would prefer to be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”
Yet whether public speaking (even oral presentations to small groups of colleagues) really is our number one fear - or something we’d just like to be comfortable with - we all recognize what a valuable skill it can be. And many jobs and career goals demand it. We’ve all seen how the ability to make an effective, persuasive speech or presentation can open doors to new donor relationships, new business opportunities, or simply support and influence -- not to mention great personal satisfaction.
So what does it take to develop more skill and confidence? Everyone’s different, of course, but in general I’ve found it involves working on:
Our Attitude: Do you, in effect, see the audience as the “enemy,” a roomful of “critics,” people to hide from or defend against in subtle, unconscious ways (e.g., avoiding eye contact, folding your arms against your chest, playing it safe behind the podium?) That attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Attitude also refers to how you treat yourself: do you let a desire for “perfection” get in the way of preparing or even agreeing to do a presentation? As that old admonition goes, let’s not make “the perfect the enemy of the good.”
Our Awareness: Awareness means, above all, being mindful of our audience--their needs and expectations—as well as our own goal for the presentation: what is it we want our audience to do, think, decide, choose, support, etc.? In other words, what action—physical or mental—do we want our audience to take, and why? After all, that’s essentially what any audience is asking: “What’s your point?” But for the audience to grasp this, we first have to be clear about it ourselves. Awareness also means recognizing that speaking is as much a physical as a mental or cognitive activity, so that we enlist both mind and body in delivering your talk, and that good speaking has some similarities to but also some crucial differences from good writing.
Our Approach to Planning and Organizing a Presentation: Any task is less daunting (and we are less likely to procrastinate!), if we have a simple, reliable method for approaching it. It’s easier if there is a “checklist” of key steps to follow. Practice those, and we’re on our way.
Like any skill, public speaking comes more naturally to some than to others—like playing a sport, using a tool, or playing a musical instrument—but everyone can get better at it. And the good news is that we don’t have to be “perfect” to be effective.
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