We have nothing to fear but…public speaking??

There is a often-quoted study, done by the Times of London in 1973, that showed that Americans feared public speaking more than death.  Much more – 41% to 19%.  I’ve always found that interesting.  I’m not particularly afraid of death (although dying, if drawn-out and painful, is a scary thought), but I’m even less afraid of public speaking.  I guess I have enough of the adulation-seeking entertainer in me that I sometimes even welcome the chance to get up and talk to a bunch of people.  I’ve also been in the cast of a couple of local theater musicals, which is a little more scary.  I trust my speaking voice completely, but I’m not enough of a trained singer that I can always trust my singing voice.

I think I can sympathize with the public-speaking fearers out there.  I have a fear of heights.  I’m not intellectually afraid (if that makes sense), because I know I’m not going to fall, but when I’m on a high place (like the observation deck of a lighthouse) I have a purely physical reaction that gives me wobbly legs and shortness of breath and a need to get down, NOW.  Maybe that’s what it feels like for other people when they stand at a podium and look out at an audience.

I do a lot of presentations as part of my job, some to students, others to other faculty and staff, and once at an international conference.  I think the hardest thing about presentations is holding on to people’s attention.  I’ve sat through enough boring presentations, lectures, and sets of PowerPoint slides, and I never want to inflict that on anyone else.  When I speak to students, I try to convince them that they really are, very soon, going to have to know how to use the information I’m giving them, and that I’m really not wasting their time, and that if they do remember what I tell them, they’ll get better grades.  Sometimes it’s a hard sell.  🙂

I don’t know if I’m a good speaker, but I’ve been told that I am, for what that’s worth.  If I could give any general advice to the speaking-phobic out there, what would it be?  I’ve never tried imagining the audience naked, but I hear that works for some!  I usually try to find 2 or 3 people who are really paying attention, watching me, and make most of my eye contact with them.  If they’re all in the same part of the room, then I look to the other sections sometimes too, in case anyone has glanced up.  It also helps to know your material cold, so that if you get distracted or thrown off track, you can pick it back up.  Practice, practice, practice – and have someone else listen to you practice, so you can get some constructive feedback. 

Try to keep your notes at a minimum.  You can’t look at your audience if you’re looking down at your notes all the time.  If you have PowerPoint slides, don’t read them!!  And don’t just make slides with lists of bullet points.  Keep the font big, and throw some multimedia in there.  When my colleague and I spoke at the international conference, all of our slides were pictures of Florida.  They were fun for the audience to look at, but we were also able to use them to make points with.

If you have handouts that are copies of your slides or notes, or supplemental material of some sort, don’t hand them out until you’re done.  Your audience will be reading your handouts and not listening to you, and wondering why they’re sitting through your lecture when they could have just read the handouts.  If you have handouts that the audience will need to refer to, though, by all means hand them out beforehand.

And remember – whoever asked you to do this presentation must think that you are capable and will do a good job of it!  Don’t worry about messing up.  No matter what you do, chances are that everyone in the audience will have sat through much worse.


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