In Anurag Kashyap’s recently released film Choked, the protagonist Sarita is haunted by flashbacks of the day she froze in front of a live audience while auditioning for a singing competition. It is a relatable feeling for many of us. A lurching stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth, and the invisible knot in the chest—tell-tale signs of our nervousness before an important performance. And this could even happen to many of us just before making a presentation or pitch at work.
As daunting as these experiences may be, you need to first realize that you are not the only one who goes through them. Fear of public speaking is one of the most common social anxieties that people from all walks of life face. There is even a word for it—glossophobia. Secondly, the fear can be overcome. There are enough examples of people who earlier had stage fright but went on to excel at captivating audiences—people as diverse as Mahatma Gandhi and the British singer Adele.
Effective public speaking is a matter of practice and habit cultivation. Harappa’s Speaking Effectively course has some handy tips and tricks on how to overcome the fear of speaking to an audience and deliver a memorable message.
If you’re skeptical about the fact that it is a skill that can be developed with practice, let’s take an example a lot of us are familiar with: Indian cricketers. Have you noticed how they seem to get better at fielding questions from journalists as their career progresses? Many of them have even gone on to pursue full-time careers in commentary and anchoring after their playing days came to an end.
In player-of-the-match interviews at the start of their careers, their lack of confidence is observable. Many a time, they are insecure about their English language skills and are not able to gather their thoughts together in a coherent manner. Many player-of-the-match awards later, you will see them analyzing the game and their own emotions confidently and incisively. As an exercise, you can compare the early and later interviews and press conferences of celebrated players like Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
So here is another takeaway: the better you get at what you do, the more confident you become as a person. So just keep doing it. Chasing excellence in your chosen field can lead to an exponential and simultaneous improvement in your public speaking skills. Even if excellence in your field doesn’t necessarily generate public speaking opportunities, insert yourself in situations where you can practice this skill.
Last year, it was reported that Chandrakant Pandit, head coach of the Vidarbha Cricket Association, introduced public speaking training for all its teams—from under-14 to women to seniors. Other cricket cultures already have a tradition of starting young. In his autobiography My Life, former Australian fast bowler Brett Lee has written that public speaking workshops formed part of the training course at the prestigious Australian Cricket Academy.
Here are some tips to keep in mind while preparing yourself for public speaking:
Know your audience:
Often, we fall into the trap of obsessively focusing only on ourselves while preparing a talk—our fears, our charisma (or the lack of it), our view. It might help to shift the focus on the audience. Ask yourself questions like: Who is going to be in the audience? What do they already know? What don’t they know? What is the occasion?
Thinking about the audience will not only help you arrive at decisions about content but also the form of delivery, which includes the tone you need to take (formal or casual, for instance). Take the example of the Hollywood actress Julia Roberts who is famously apprehensive about speaking in public. Her 2001 Oscar acceptance speech was all about displaying authentic emotion.
It went down as one of the most memorable Oscar speeches because her honesty struck a chord with the audience. It is likely she would have thought up a speech in her head (in case she won) but she let herself improvise on stage. It is clear that this is not a tone you should take in a formal presentation to your department head. But, if you’re preparing a speech for a farewell party that the company has organized for you, you can let yourself go a little.
Start with a story:
Another hack to put yourself at ease while speaking to an audience is to create a narrative around your content. Start your presentation or talk with a question, story, or anecdote. It buys you time to compose yourself and really get in the groove.
This technique is often deployed by bestselling author and public speaker Malcolm Gladwell. When you start with an anecdote or example, the audience has to focus on the characters and the takeaway, rather than the storyteller. Immediately, you’ve grabbed their attention by causing them to think: Where is she/he going with this?
Gladwell has often spoken about the amount of work he puts into developing and improving his public speaking skills. On a podcast with Tim Ferriss, he said “Giving a speech is much more than just standing up and reading an article. It is a world that has its own rules and principles and I threw myself into it.”
Keep it short and lively:
It is hard to believe but flamboyant entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has often said that public speaking doesn’t come naturally to him. Talking to the Washington Post, he recalled his first-ever interview. It was for BBC Radio 4, and he was sent back a couple of tapes by them. After hearing the first one, he was rather “chuffed” with himself because he sounded very articulate. When he heard the second one, which contained a lot of his “uhs” and “uhms”, he realized that the first tape had been neatly edited.
In a blog post on the Virgin website, he narrates an instance when a speaker “droned on” for a couple of hours at an event in Japan. Looking around, he saw most people asleep. Branson had been asked to do a 1.5-hour speech as a follow-up. Instead, he got on stage and interacted with the audience for 40 minutes.
In the same blog, Branson recommends “coming up with witty lines to make people laugh, especially at the beginning and end”. This is an especially useful tip if one is preparing a serious speech. His advice: start with a smile, have a laugh in the middle, be sure to include serious stuff either side of that, but end on a smile.
So, there you have it—some useful hacks to overcome your fear of public speaking. Having said this, the one thing that will really help is experience. Keep doing as much of it as you can. We will leave you with advice from Lucy Kellaway, star columnist of the Financial Times: “The more talks you give the less nervous you get — partly because you improve, but mainly because you work out that the world does not end if things do not go quite to plan.”
Discover more from Harappa with a selection of trending blogs on the latest topics in online learning and career transformation