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From Myth to Reality: Dispelling seven falsehoods of public speaking

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March 24, 2014

by Darlene Price, guest blogger

Do you believe great speakers are born, not made; that you either have the gift or you don’t?

This is one of many public speaking myths that often prevent potential ‘stars’ from shining on the platform.

Darlene Price photo

Darlene Price, President and Founder, Well Said, Inc.

The reality is that any effective speech has at least three critical elements: style, substance, and impact–each of which depends upon the speaker to deliver. These don’t happen by chance.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” Any good or bad speaker becomes a great speaker with the proper training, preparation, and practice. So, if you want to become a better speaker and presenter, the reality is–you can do it!

“And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.”

–Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

Kudzu is an invasive, noxious weed common throughout the southeastern United States that spreads at the rate of 150,000 acres annually. The plant grows so rapidly it smothers and destroys native trees and shrubs, blocking their access to vital sunlight.

Similarly, in the world of public speaking and effective communications, myth can often suffocate reality.

To ensure you and your message are placed in the best possible light, let’s clear out the ‘kudzu’ and claim these seven realities:

 

SPEAKING MYTH 1:
GREAT SPEAKERS DON’T GET NERVOUS

REALITY: Many experts agree that a certain amount of nervousness is actually necessary for a great performance. This normal natural response produces adrenaline, which fuels your body with energy and focus.

Top speakers, actors, entertainers and athletes report feeling nervousness and anxiety before a performance. Abraham Lincoln wrote about his struggle with pre-speech jitters. Laurence Olivier’s manager had to push him onstage for a performance at London’s National Theater. Barbra Streisand stopped performing live for almost three decades out of fear she would forget her lyrics during a concert. Masters Champion Bubba Watson has suffered from anxiety and panic attacks for most of his professional golf career.

The track record of these top performers teaches us that nervousness doesn’t have to get in the way of greatness. In fact, you can expect it. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it.”

For ten tips on managing nervousness, please read my recent article, “How to Turn Stage Fright into STAGE MIGHT.

 

SPEAKING MYTH 2:
MEMORIZE YOUR SPEECH WORD FOR WORD

REALITY: Most of the time, it’s much more effective to speak naturally and conversationally versus reading a script or reciting a text from memory. Instead, prioritize a few key points and memorize the main concepts you want to communicate.

When you rehearse the points aloud several times, ideally the words will vary a bit every time, but the main gist will be the same. That’s the goal: to sound clear and organized, while maintaining a friendly, conversational tone. By all means, occasionally refer to a few bullet points or an outline to stay on track, but avoid being tied to a manuscript.

 

SPEAKING MYTH 3:
TURN OFF OR DIM THE LIGHTS FOR SLIDES

REALITY: Researchers at the U.S. National Sleep Foundation report that darkness prompts the human brain’s pineal gland to produce melatonin, a natural hormone that causes sleepiness.

It’s much better to keep the lights on for several reasons: a) your audience is more likely to stay awake; b) your audience can see YOU, the primary visual aid; c) you can see your audience; d) your audience can take notes and see each other.

To avoid washed out images on the screen and ensure your slides can be seen clearly in a lighted room, arrange to use a high brightness projector with 3000 to 4500 lumens.

 

SPEAKING MYTH 4:
LOOK OVER THE HEADS OF YOUR AUDIENCE

REALITY: Acceptable eye contact patterns differ culturally; however, in the Western world, direct eye contact with your listeners is critical if you want to convey confidence, build rapport, and establish trust.

Though the normal response of nervousness may tempt us as speakers to look everywhere but at the audience, effective communicators know that direct eye contact is the quickest way to make a confident and personable connection with their listeners.

Strive to focus on one person at a time for two to three seconds, or long enough to complete a thought or sentence. This is long enough to truly acknowledge individuals and show your interest in them, but not too long to make them feel uncomfortable.

 

SPEAKING MYTH 5:
DON’T TALK WITH YOUR HANDS

REALITY: Audience surveys show that speakers who use their hands to naturally gesture and express a point are perceived as more relaxed, believable, and likeable than speakers who do not. Speakers who keep their hands locked by their sides, clenched at their waist, stuffed in their pockets, or hidden behind their back typically appear stiff and nervous.

Of course some people are by nature more animated than others, which is fine. The point is, use your hands as you would in a fun, free-flowing conversation with a friend.

Try this: the next time you have a relaxed enjoyable chat with someone whose company you enjoy, notice what your hands are doing. They are most likely moving naturally and unconsciously–perfectly punctuating your point. That’s exactly what your audience wants to see.

 

SPEAKING MYTH 6:
START WITH A JOKE

REALITY: Please don’t do it. As professional comedian Steven Wright advises, “Only one in four jokes ever works–I have no idea which one it will be, or what the audience will laugh at.” You don’t have to be funny or comedic to be effective.

Instead of telling a joke that may fall flat or possibly backfire, start with a safer more appropriate attention-getter: a topical quote, personal story, intriguing fact, audience interaction, shocking statistic, or relevant photo.

 

SPEAKING MYTH 7:
STAND BEHIND THE LECTERN

REALITY: If you want to motivate and inspire a business audience, the lectern is a liability. In most cases, avoid it entirely since it creates a physical and psychological barrier between you and your listeners.

The lectern’s original purpose was a reading desk (from the Latin legere, “to read”) used primarily by speakers in religious and academic settings to hold books or manuscripts; therefore, historically it gained the reputation of conveying power and authority. In fact, the president of the United States has a lectern equipped with a bulletproof cap to provide personal protection against potential assassins.

Though some corporate executives may feel they need this shield at times, ideally today’s business leaders are front and center, fully visible, approachable, and available to their audiences–listeners who likely seek sincerity and value, versus formality and authority.

 

This post was written by Darlene Price of WellSaid!: Executive Presentation and Communication Training, and originally published in WellSaid’s February, 2014 e-newsletter. It was reprinted with permission from the author.

Click here to read this and other recent e-newseletters on the “Free Resources” page of the WellSaid! website.

For more information or to reprint this blog, please contact Darlene Price.

 

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