Perhaps the most well-documented fact about public speaking is that, statistically, it is our number #1 fear. The average person finds heights, financial problems, and even death less terrifying.
I can understand financial problems not necessarily making one quiver. After all it’s not like in the Middle Ages when there was debtor’s prison, where, for failing to pay a debt, one was manacled with heavy chains and hurled in a dungeon.
Heights, similarly, don’t scare daredevil types, cliff divers, and those with an interest in skydiving. But why, in particular, would the average person rather die than make a speech? What aspect of public speaking makes expiring right on the spot seem far less hazardous?
After some careful deliberation it occurred to me that considering public speaking more terrifying than death isn’t altogether illogical. There is really no wrong way to die. Some deaths are painful. Others hardly end gracefully. But while undergoing the process of dying relatives and friends tend to give you — the poor, suffering expiring one — if you will — a free pass. You can make crazy statements. Express ideas as out of whack as the guy below (for unless you’re an Egyptian Pharaoh you can’t take your possessions with you to the afterlife).
No matter. Your audience will still forgive. A poor speaker has no such luck. He may be shunned, derided behind closed doors, even filmed and exposed through youtube or other media outlets in ways that perpetually haunt.
It is no wonder, then, that people are so afraid to make a speech. This fear is healthy, for, rest assured, your speech does matter. Some think no one remembers your speech anyway. Nonsense. If no one remembers it perhaps you didn’t make it memorable enough.
Have to present in front of corporate clients, colleagues, or friends — this is your chance to make a strong impression. You may not get another opportunity of this magnitude to endear yourself to such a large social network. You would likely have to spend hours on Twitter, or travel half the world, while constantly handing out business cards, to have as large an impact in such a brief time period.
Here, then, are five techniques to improve your speech — techniques that are likely to keep you from looking as stressed out as this anxious, misguided soul.
- Plan, Plan, Plan — Friends and colleagues will tell you how liberating it was to open up and make a speech from the heart. Don’t believe them. Either they put in preparatory work or hit the speech-making lotto. You do not want to rely on pure chance when a room filled with friends, family, and colleagues are staring you down. Years of experience as a standup comedian and public speaker have taught me that it is best to plan everything — every pause, every nuanced gesture, every seemingly casual remark. It goes without saying that your speech needs not only to be memorized and organized efficiently, but emotionally resonant and persuasive. Any plan is better than no plan. But that doesn’t mean you should just take any plan out of the dumpster (see poor sap below).
2) Make It Appear Spontaneous — It goes without saying that a nervous, fumbling disposition will detract from the impact of your speech. But nearly as important as confidence is the ability to make a carefully sculpted speech seem perfectly natural and spontaneous. This doesn’t mean to behave in a crazy or madcap manner, like in the image below, where you put a paper bag over your head. But it does mean you need to work hard to make your speech seem as if it just occurred to you, connect with the audience, and, finally, develop intelligent segues that add to the fluidity and impact of your message.
3)Keep It Real — The fear of offending important figures in the room leads many orators to pad their speech with fluff. Certainly one has to be cognizant of the sensitivities and feelings of those in the room. At the same time, a dash of honesty, even bluntness, can enliven a hall or auditorium that is turning into a crypt. Many audiences are bored out of their skulls by the hundreds of proper, well-organized, yet ultimately meaningless speeches they are forced to listen to over the course of a year. Give people a bit of raw truth, wake them up by demonstrating you’re not going to just recite platitudes, and they will respect you. For the truth is they don’t want someone who monkeys around all day. Get to the point. Learn from Bobo. Keep it real.
4) Use Facts/Quotes/Anecdotes-Providing external sources of evidence to bolster and illustrate your claims is an essential part of making an effective speech. Without it, audiences will feel a lack, or absence, constantly waiting for that moment when you will step up to the plate. Don’t be like Tony. Bolster your claims.
A) Quotes: There is a reason speeches so often conclude with a famous quote from a site like Quoteland — a relevant quote depersonalizes a speech and makes it more relatable. What is more, it provides a validating authority to further confirm your overall message. That’s said, you want to present a unique perspective and not merely rely on the quote to do all the heavy lifting. It should merely be a final touch, a last consideration, that cements what is already firmly established. Otherwise, you are likely to upset your source. Jessie Jackson, for one, experienced this, leading him to make the statement, “I know they are all environmentalists. I heard a lot of my speeches recycled.”
B) Facts: Facts add legitimacy to your message and give concrete examples that make audiences take note. You don’t want to bombard audiences with too much information, but, carefully placed, at regular intervals, these can really take your speech to the next level. There is a real danger in going overboard with your facts. William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural ceremony speech (8445 words), exposing himself to cold and wet weather, and, sadly, killing him a month later through pneumonia. Yes. Add too many facts and you could die.
C) Anecdotes- If art is in the details, then speech making is in the anecdote. Once I had to give a comedy show at a benefit for Crohn’s And Colitis sponsored by the CCFA. I told the audience about the severe dietary restrictions the condition forced me to adopt in a light-hearted fashion. Lobster, Spaghetti and White Clam, Key Lime Pie, Lamb Chops, even Borscht. I made light of the fact that they were taking Borscht away from me. “Not the Borscht!” I cried. “What’s next Kugel Pudding? Pickled Herring?” By making my condition more relatable, by personalizing it, audiences were more willing to laugh at my material.
5) Practice Your Speech Before A Live Person — Before I make a speech I often run it by my overly critical Jewish mother. If she doesn’t tear it to pieces it is unlikely audiences will. It goes without saying that you need to organize your speech carefully and practice before a mirror or in front of a camera. But there are unique benefits to a live person that these other methods cannot duplicate. First you get instant feedback. Second you’re audience members might have insight into how to improve your speech or fix quirks/issues you failed to notice. Finally, this can help you develop a Plan B — jokes, witty comments, observations about the room — that you might use on the day of the speech in the event it is not going as you imagined. Some people skip this step. Don’t. Better to be embarrassed in front of mom, grandma, and the family dog than a room filled with inquisitive strangers ready to judge your every word.
Finally, if it doesn’t go as well as planned remain calm. Keep matters in perspective. Whatever you do, don’t blame the audience.
Instead consider this a learning opportunity, and, while still in public, be oblivious. Pretend it was a success.
You’ll do better next time. But I don’t anticipate you’ll run into real trouble. For if you follow these steps, and relax sufficiently on the day of the speech, you should have no problem overcoming mankind’s worst fear.