Public Speaking- From Fear to Fierce
I went to a high school that put great emphasis on classical skills: Logic, Latin, and Rhetoric. The term “rhetoric” has a bad reputation in today’s society that is completely undeserved. The word “rhetoric” simply referred to the art of communication, often in public speaking or in discussion format.
That discussion aside, I loved the methods that we were taught to overcome that fear of public speaking, and I think that others could benefit as well. I remember the first time that each person in our ninth grade class had to present a paper to our history class. We were all white-knuckled clutching our entirely pre-written papers that must have only been two or three hand written pages in length. Shaking knees and even shakier voices were quite prevalent. The next year, when we started rhetoric classes, I watched those same students, including myself, giving speeches fifteen minutes or longer with very little noticeable hesitation.
Whatever age a person starts giving speeches, the first several are, at least in my experience, absolutely terrifying. Depending on the person, speeches might always be a little scary, but training can be used to combat that fear and to have techniques to fall back on.
What Helped me Most- Everyone else is Nervous Too
I remember that our first assignment in rhetoric class was to come into class the next day prepared with a joke to tell while standing in front of the class. I was absolutely petrified. Jokes were not my thing in any setting, and certainly not in front of the entire class. I think the realization that everyone else was just as nervous as I was about this simple assignment helped me more than anything else. In a weird way, the shared nervousness between classmates actually turned into excitement, which is a much more helpful emotion than fear.
Our next assignment was to tell a ghost story, and that task followed much the same pattern. We were all nervous, but excited as well.
When we were finally told that we were going to make a “speech,” we had already built up some small amount of experience and comfort with the idea. The speech only needed to be three minutes long, and it could be about any topic that the speaker chose. I think that every person has some conversation topic that they can pull out of their proverbial back pocket and speak about for three minutes. It could be on how much the person liked cats, for all that our teacher cared. By gradually increasing the length of the speech and increasing the seriousness of the topic, our teachers eased our way into the idea that public speaking doesn’t have to be the scariest thing in the world.
Other Bits of Advice:
Avoid “Um…” like the plague. You can honestly fool your audience into thinking that you are an excellent speaker by not saying “Um…” A two second pause to collect thoughts and possibly a sip of water will make the speaker appear more collected and knowledgeable.
Specifically For Question and Answer Segments:
Try to think ahead of time about common types of questions that might be asked so that you can have answers prepared. Often teachers are going to make sure that you have to answer at least a few questions.
Arrange to have friends in the audience ask questions that you can answer easily. It may seem a little like cheating, but it isn’t, and it is a great way to practice. You and your friends can come up with questions to ask when you practice in front of them (which is a good idea).
If a strange question is asked, the best tip is to not panic and to not become defensive in your demeanor. Defensiveness and panic only look unprofessional. Take that two second pause and optional sip of water to think about the question and think about if you already know the answer to it. A few seconds can be used to search your memory before just shouting something out. If you do not know the answer, say something calmly like, “I haven’t done much research in that particular aspect, but I can get back to you later with more information.” Saying something like that is a simple was to save face. If it is a speech class, you are generally been graded more on the way you handle yourself than on your knowledge of the particular topic anyway.
Honestly, it is very unlikely that anyone will ask you for more information about your topic later. If the speech is in a class that isn’t specifically a speech class, and especially if your teacher asks the question, you will probably impress the teacher more by actually following up later with additional information about the question asked.
If You Practice, You can be the Calm, Collected One Next Time
When I came to college speech class and was asked to give a five minute speech with any visual aids that I wanted, the tasked paled in comparison to the thirty minute speech with only a note card that I had given years before in high school.