Monday, June 6, 2016

7 Things I Wish I Knew About Public Speaking When I Was in High School

When I was in high school, I had a number of times when I was required to speak in front of a group of people, both at school and other organizations. I hated it. If I could have gotten out of it, I would have. I still remember feeling ill from nerves, leading up to the speech. But now, I kind of wish I could go back and do it again, with the knowledge I have now. There were things that our teachers tried to teach us about public speaking. Most of it, I didn’t get, because it didn’t help me with my situation. Here are some things I wish I had known:

1. Knowing the subject matter is more important than wording.

My approach to giving a speech was to write out what I wanted to say and then develop ways to memorize what I had written. The problem is that when you are standing in front of people, you don’t trust yourself to recall your memorized speech, which makes you nervous, which causes you to forget even more. Now, I don’t write speeches, I write outlines. The better I know the subject material, the shorter my outline can be. The purpose of the outline is not to remind you of the material, but to remind you of the order in which you wish to present the material. If you know the subject well enough, you may not need an outline at all. You simply tell people what you know.

2. Handle nerves by looking at people.

There were several approaches to handling butterflies that I heard about in high school. Some people say to imagine people in their underwear. One idea was to beat the tar out of something with a newspaper before the speech. Those don’t work. What does work is looking at people. If you can, spend some time before speaking of giving a performance looking at the audience. If in a big meeting hall, sit on the front row and turn around and watch people as they filter in and take their seats. They aren’t nearly as scary as the people in your imagination. In a small setting, spend the time before your speech talking to people. Shake hands with people. Ask them how their week is going.

3. There are other people more nervous than you.

Because I’ve never been one to talk much, I’ve often heard people refer to me as shy. “He’s just shy,” they would say. Believing that to be the case, I convinced myself that I was more nervous about public speaking than other people were. I learned otherwise in college. In an architecture class, we were required to give a verbal presentation for a building that we designed. I was nervous, but I made it through the presentation, communicating all the information I needed to convey. Another student did not fare so well. His nervousness was visible on his face as he gave his presentation. He made it to the end and as he was returning to his seat, he fainted and fell in the floor next to my seat. I began to realize that my nerves were minor compared to some people, that I enjoyed public speaking, and that I wasn’t as shy as people assumed.

4. Nerves are optional.

Several years ago, I stood in front of about 800 people. This was my first time in front of that many people. I felt the butterflies building up, but I remember consciously pushing that feeling aside. In the past, when I felt nervous, would worry that my nerves would make it impossible to do what I needed to do. But it really is possible to simply refuse to be nervous.

5. The first few minutes are the worst.

Nervousness about public speaking is caused by the fight or flight response. It is impossible for a person to remain keyed up for long periods of time. Once you start talking, the adrenaline levels will begin to decrease. After a few minutes, you can settle into the talk and enjoy yourself.

6. Tell Stories

Story telling is one of the best things you can do when speaking in public. You can list a bunch of facts and accomplish nothing, but people will remember your stories. On top of that, if you need to fill time, stories tend to eat up a lot of time without requiring you to remember a lot of details.

7. Have one and only one point.

A speech should have only one point. Going into a speech, you should know the one thing you want your audience to do or to remember. Everything else should go into communicating that point. I don’t recall my high school teachers telling me this. The point of my speeches was to fulfill the requirements of the class. I didn’t care whether my classmates learned something or took some action. Had I focused on a call to action instead of getting a good grade, my speeches would have been much better.