OK, so I’m a natural, I’ll give you that. First memory of being in front of an audience was when I was about four. Some kind of dance recital for nursery school (back in the early 1960s, it wasn’t called “preschool”). I distinctly remember admiring my shiny new dancing shoes backstage. Also my red and white net…hat, I think it was. It languished in my closet for years afterward. I stepped out onto the stage, which had lights, I think. I was stoked, jazzed, definitely not terrified. Not at all. Really no idea why, since I have been nervous in performance since, but only in karate tests and playing the piano. You put me in front of an audience and tell me to open my mouth to speak, and I’m fine.
I may talk too much if I don’t have a prepared speech, mind you, and I will get nervous if someone asks me a question that’s way off topic, but not very nervous. I learned as an intelligence briefer in the Air Force that it’s OK not to know everything; just know where to find the info and get back to the questioner later (especially if they have stars on their shoulders!). I also ended up with a lot of experience as an instructor in the Air Force as well, which definitely helped me maintain my public speaking confidence even after I returned to civilian life in the mid-1980s.
I know most folks are totally terrified when asked to speak before a group (of ten or a thousand, and sometimes a thousand is easier, especially with bright lights so you can’t see them), and most of it seems to be about confidence in their own knowledge and ability to express that smoothly, and deal with questions without stumbling.
You all are really much too hard on yourselves, you know. 🙂 Look how far Teddy Kennedy got with all those “ums.” Although he did do his homework on the content bit. And that’s likely what gave him the confidence to speak with authority, even if he didn’t have a totally polished delivery (and, no, it wasn’t all that money).
Let’s go through my big factors in public performance success, with an emphasis on speaking and see if there’s anything in them to calm your jitters.
Big factor #1: Knowing. Knowing your stuff, whether it’s a song on the piano, a move in a dance, or a topic for a speech. The more “expert” you can get prior to the event, the more confident you’ll feel. But there’s no way you can be the Horowitz of pianists during the first recital, or the Pavlova of dancers at the first student performance. So, it’s important to get real about your expectations and not be too perfectionist about the content part. Your audience will likely be much easier on you than you will be on yourself. There’s also the intelligence briefer mantra to follow-up on anything you can’t answer at the time. You’ll be fine. And you won’t be out there naked, like in your public speaking nightmares. Promise. Unless you live and work in a nudist community, and then I assume that this part will be OK. 😉
Big factor #2: Practice. Now the cringing comes in. And I am totally with you on this one. Video or audio (depending on the sort of performance you’ll be doing). Yep. Gotta do it. Yep, my voice sounds weird to me played back. Yep, I look stupid to me in video. But it’s really the only way to get feedback from yourself to tweak your delivery.
I still remember giving a talk at a little home-based church in my neighborhood. They videotaped all the talks, and the minister gave me the tape afterwards so I could review it. Took me forever, or damn near, to get around to it. Minister asked for the tape (it was real video tape) back to re-use, so I had to look at it. Cringe. But I learned so much! I definitely needed to tune-up my delivery because I hadn’t spoken in a long time and my body movements in particular were distracting. So, there you go. Comfortable I was, but my delivery still needed work. So, video and/or audio rehearsal = Do It!
Big factor #3: Passion. If you aren’t excited or inspired or just plain curious about what you are communicating to your audience, whether speaking or some other activity, you will have trouble getting the information to stick, and you will likely put your audience to doodling or nodding off.
The most important lesson I learned in a college class on public speaking years ago was about passion. I gave a number of speeches in the class, and although they were well-organized and smoothly presented, they didn’t fire up my audience—I didn’t really connect emotionally (and you need to do this for intellectual as well as traditionally inspirational speaking). No, I didn’t need to get all 6-foot-9 Tony Robbins energy up there (although he does that genuinely from within, so it works for him). That’s the thing, it has to come from inside using whatever style is yours. It’s not about consciously manipulating the audience to connect with them; you gotta be jazzed about what you’re saying. And I wasn’t passionate about any of my speech content until I talked about linguistics, which was my college major. I really love language in its almost-infinite variety, and when I talked about that, I really made an impact, not just on the minds of my audience by on their “hearts.”
So, knowing, practice, passion. That should calm most of the nerves, I think, although many of you may still not actively seek out public speaking. But if you’re an author who needs to promote your book, or a scientist who needs to convince your peers, or a business consultant who needs to change a corporate culture, public speaking is still an important skill set, and one that need not terrify, especially if you take care of the discomforts ahead of time.
I will leave you with some excellent advice I got from a minister when I was learning to give lay talks for a Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1990s: Touch their minds, touch their hearts, and give them something to take away, something that changes them inside in some way. You will need the knowing, the practice, and most importantly, the passion in order to give this gift to your audience. That’s what gave me so much satisfaction, even when I was four: giving the audience some part of me to take home with them. It was a gift for them, and a gift for me. And that’s what a good energy exchange is all about.
I would really, really love to hear your stories of learning to perform in public, especially how it felt, and how it feels, what your big factors are, and if you found anything in my little missive here helpful. Comments, please!