November 2020

Keep Losing the Fear

Toastmasters leaders are not immune to speaking jitters, especially when out of their comfort zone; it pays to refresh some public-speaking basics.

Keep Losing the Fear

Are you a leader who still gets nervous before speaking? Mark Twain believed that all honest speakers answer “yes.” Professional Speaker and 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking Darren LaCroix would agree. LaCroix explained that even after years of rousing international audiences, he can still get the jitters—especially when in unfamiliar territory, like recently at a large family event where he found himself shaking while speaking.

“It’s not really the fear of public speaking, it’s the fear of public embarrassment,” he relayed in October as a panelist for one of Toastmasters’ Public Speaking webinars. “Speaking at my sister’s wedding, everyone in the room knew what I did for a living; it was high-anxiety for me.” And this was a different venue and different audience from what LaCroix was used to—it was his personal life this time, not his professional one. But the basics of public speaking, learned at Toastmasters and through practice, still apply.

Here’s a quick refresher course—with tips from LaCroix and five other webinar panelists and the moderator—reminding leaders how they can speak more confidently, both in and out of their comfort zone:

Audience focus—Always think about the audience, stop thinking about yourself, says John Bowe, writer and book author. “Take your mind off yourself and the noise in your head.”

Environment practice—“Before you give a speech, visualize the audience—how old they are, how many will be there, what the place will look like,” Bowe adds. “The more you understand all this, the better you will deliver.” This kind of practice takes the pressure off, believes Tammy Miller, Pennsylvania State University professor and professional auctioneer.

Off-stage practice—Impromptu speaking is another form of practice. Ramona J. Smith, 2018 World Champion of Public Speaking, professional speaker, educator, and author, recommends trying virtual reality games that mimic a stage setting or even just practicing Table Topics® with family members. She admits she does this on road trips and at the dinner table. “Don’t wait for a meeting, make it a game. Do it in situations where there’s no pressure,” she says.

Fresh material—It sounds simple but is so important—make sure the material is fresh and relevant, says Miller.

Clear message—Another piece of basic advice—get clear on the message you are trying to get across. If you can’t explain your message in ten words or fewer, then you won’t be clear when delivering it, and “the audience doesn’t have a prayer to understand you,” according to LaCroix.

Golden rule theory—Remember that people in the audience—your peers and colleagues—want you to succeed, says Liz Jin, a lawyer, Coca-Cola executive, and vlogger. With that in mind, don’t try to make your communication so perfect, adds Anwesha Banerjee, a neuroscientist and public speaker. The audience is not looking for details you may have forgotten. If you forget, move on.

Authenticity first—People can sense when you’re not being authentic. “You need to be exactly who you are,” believes Smith.

Low-hanging fruit—Stand straight, look people in the eye, and smile. These are low-hanging fruit ways to look and feel more confident, no matter what the setting, according to Jin.

Powerful pause—Don’t be afraid of the pause when speaking, advises Jin. Let the audience digest what you are saying; filler words will decrease with the pause. Make your sentences shorter and say to yourself, “FULL STOP” silently to force you to slow down and speak at a normal pace, advices Simon Bucknall, speaker and Oxford adjunct faculty member.

Oops recovery—The best speakers can still stumble—but they have recovery tools in their back pocket. Bucknall once took five seconds to walk across the stage to “defuse the rabbit in headlights,” to allow himself time to collect his thoughts when his mind went blank. This might be a visible tactic or not, but “the audience won’t mind if you don’t get too distracted by it,” he says. Smith agrees that the audience doesn’t know your presentation and if you do stumble, do something subtle—close your eyes, clasp your hands, say “oh yes,” basically “wing it,” she advises. What you don’t want to do is say, “I forgot,” “so sorry,” or any words to that effect. Stay calm and collected. Keep confident and recover. And if your speech, talk, or presentation was not your proudest moment, just remember that “great speakers became great by bombing and moving on,” LaCroix reminds.

Virtual thoughts—Zoom and other online meetings are becoming the new stage, with the same tips as above, but perhaps “a softer way to introduce yourself to larger crowds,” according to Banerjee. There’s more fear in person than virtually, she says, so it’s the perfect way to hone your skills. Remember eye contact is critical, even in Zoom, according to Bowe. LaCroix puts a sticky note next to his camera lens on the computer that says, “Look here” to remind himself. Lastly, learn the technology and practice with family and friends so you can shine when presenting professionally, says Miller.

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