You may be an expert in your field but is stress ruining your ability to engage with an audience?
Andrew P Bennett explains how to put those nerves to good use
You’re an experienced coach. You know your subject. You have an opportunity to present at a conference before 2,000 people. You’re delighted to have this chance to share your knowledge. What great publicity for your business too! There’s one problem. You’ve never spoken to such a large audience before and the prospect makes you very nervous indeed.
This article is designed to help you put your nerves to good use to produce a great presentation and avoid public speaking pitfalls along the way.
First, please note that all successful speakers experience some level of nervousness before a major presentation but they’ve learned to establish control over their nerves and use them as energy to enhance their presentation.
Arriving at the venue or online on the day and plunging straight into your presentation without adequate preparation.
Make it work
Arrive having rehearsed your presentation, polished your script through timed practice and coordinated any slides or interactive element so they flow seamlessly.
That’s the necessary background work. Now, what about the delivery of the presentation? Speakers often consult me because they’ve been told their voices lack body and are monotonous, perhaps sitting on one pitch most of the time.
You need to engage your audience through your voice. Find a warm-up routine. This will include work on posture, breathing, some humming (a stressless way to coax a pleasing quality from your voice) and some clear-articulation exercises.
Use your posture
Poor posture, whether standing or sitting to speak. The way you stand or sit can influence whether or not an audience listens to you.
Make it work
If you play a musical instrument you learn how to hold it to produce the most beautiful, engaging sounds. It’s the same with our physical stage presence and our voices.
Place your feet no more than shoulder width apart, firmly feeling the ground underneath you. To align your posture, imagine a line proceeding up the back of your legs and continuing up your spine. Your shoulders are back and relaxed, hands and arms comfortably by your sides in case you need them for gestures. Imagine your head ‘crowning’ your body.
There’s nothing stiff about this position. Think of it as springy, active, alert – ready to speak.
Use your breath
When a stressed speaker breathes in a very high, in the chest, noisy, asthmatic way, with or without a microphone. This tension communicates itself to the audience as the speaker’s voice will lack strength and even be tremulous.
Make it work
Establish calm control over your breathing before going on stage.
Start by gently breathing out. We all have residual air and taking even more air in on top of that makes us feel tense.
Maintaining your flexible posture, place your thumb under your lowest rib at the side of your rib cage, shoulders still back and relaxed. Gently and slowly take a calm breath through your nose, feel a slight expansion at the rib cage. Then calmly breathe out.
This kind of breathing, focused lower down the body, has a calming effect.
Having found the sensation of this ‘lowest rib’ breath, which is anchored deep in your body, you can then practise your breath span. Do so for only one or two minutes at a time to avoid feeling lightheaded.
Take a low breath and then slowly breathe out counting steadily to 5 in your mind: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!
Rest for a moment, then take your low breath and breathe out, counting in your mind to 6.
With regular practice you can continue all the way up to 10, or even beyond this.
Remember the focus is a feeling of depth and the breath is low down the body. Try only one or two minutes of this type of exercise, then take a break.
Master the sound
Dehydration. Our vocal folds or chords work well only when there is humidity. Start with a few sips of water. Plain, room temperature water is best, neither chilled nor hot.
Make it work
Maintaining your buoyant posture and low calm breathing, gently hum a few lines of a song. I use ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in my international workshops as it is a song that exists in many forms in different cultures. It also has the advantage of the third line being a bit longer and requiring you to spin your breath a bit further than the other lines.
Before you start, blow out your lips as on a cold day – low breath, then Brrrrrr! This ensures that lips are loose for a resonant hum.
Don’t stress about the quality of your singing voice. You are warming up your voice, freeing yourself of any sticky catarrh that could make you sound hoarse, through the resonance of humming. Hum your song and enjoy it!
Now let’s try out a few consonants for clarity of diction. All speakers have accents which are a part of their identity and that is great. What we’re interested in is verbal clarity. Our audience needs to hear our words distinctly to grasp our meaning. Try:
Pitter Patter Potter x 3
Baby, Mummy, Daddy x 3
There are many tongue twisters to be found online. Here is one:
Imagine an imaginary menagerie manager, imagining managing an imaginary menagerie
Say it slowly at first to master the sounds. Don’t rush. Maintain good posture and breathing.
Lastly, try the opening lines of your presentation aloud once or twice to ‘break the ice’ before you go on stage or enter the virtual speaking space.
This warm-up routine will also be helpful to your clients. Encourage them as they rehearse with you to breathe calmly. In an engaging presentation your breathing is regulated by the thought of what you are going to say and by the meaning of your words.
Get your client speakers to make use of pauses to collect their thoughts as they pass from point to point, allowing the audience time to follow them.
Speakers with great posture, calm, anchored breathing and a warmed-up voice are ready to reflect outwards the meaning of their words to their audience through their eyes, facial expression and gestures. It is a liberating experience to be able to share a message on this secure foundation. Speakers who do this, light up their stage or screen.
- About the author
Andrew P Bennett DTM is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management.
- To find your nearest club, visit: www.toastmasters.org