Monday, December 27, 2010

The Swimming Pool of Public Speaking: How to Get From the Shallow End to the Deep End

“The only thing to fear is fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address. But was he afraid when he was giving that speech? Probably, given that an estimated 95% of people experience anxiety when speaking publicly. While both genders experience nervousness over public speaking, it seems that women are more likely than men to keep quiet. According to Debrah Tannen’s studies on gender differences in communication styles, men tend to talk more than women in public situations. Says public speaking coach and consultant Meera Manek, “In school, it seemed that when the boys had to give a presentation, it wouldn’t worry them as much as the girls. They’d stand up and smile. They just seemed like they had more confidence.”

Manek won a speech festival in junior high and became fascinated with public speaking. Eager to take her newfound skill somewhere, she joined the Toastmasters organization with her cousin. For the first five years, she kept up with table topics and speeches and entered contests. Then she won the district-wide contest and decided to take it to the next level. “Within Toastmasters, there are numerous levels, including leadership, coaching members, and mentoring. I started a club at my school in D.C. and was selected to be the graduation speaker for my class,” explained Manek. Now in Atlanta and completing her 11th year in Toastmasters, Manek coaches professional women in public speaking. 

There are many things that add up to the type of speaker you are, including your culture and the experiences you had as a child. In Manek’s experiences, women have an easier time being sincere when it comes to public speaking, because they naturally make eye contact with their audiences and know how to use body language to emphasize their points. 

So why are so many younger women afraid of public speaking? “Because it’s fucking scary, even at my stage,” Manek laughs. “You’re getting in front of a group of people, and you know they’re judging you. You can forget your lines. It’s terrifying, and it all happens in a single moment. That’s why you need to prepare. Treat it like any other goal. With weight loss, women are willing to reach out and look for tools in order to help them reach their goal weight. Women need to treat public speaking in the same way.” 

Younger women experience public speaking more often than they realize. “People rarely think about the fact that they’re communicating all the time in everyday ways, with their bosses and clients, on phone calls, and during last-minute meetings. Or, consider that if there are three qualified candidates for a position, an interview can easily decide the outcome. These are times when being a skilled public speaker is key to making you stand out.”

Manek offers advice on how women improve their public speaking skills. “Fundamentally, public speaking is about getting to know yourself and doing your research. Practice in the mirror. Every women glances in the mirror several times a day already. Why not use that time to rehearse? Go ahead and grab your hairbrush like you’re giving an acceptance speech at the Oscars. See what you look like, and take special notice of your hands. Get your arms moving; nobody wants to see you up there stiff as a board. That will even make your audience nervous. You can also try opening old nursery rhyme books and act as though you were reading to a kid. Try out different voices for different characters; your voice is one of your biggest public speaking resources. I also recommend joining Toastmasters – it’s like a learning laboratory. It lets you feel what it’s really like to speak in front of a group, and you can learn from people’s evaluations. It gives you the opportunity to listen to others speak too, which is vital in learning what to do as well as what not to do.”

It can also be helpful to look at how some of the best speakers in history worked their magic. Seek out old speeches from people you really admire. Manek also advises learning from comedians and entertainers. “Comedians are an amazing resource for public speaking. Being on stage is their job. Many of them don’t have props; they have to entertain and engage their audience with only themselves. If they don’t connect with the audience, nobody will come see them. Watch Jon Stewart on the ‘The Daily Show.’ Oprah’s also a wonderful impromptu speaker; she always knows how to steer a conversation into the right direction.”

Preparation can make or break a speech too. Manek asserts that you must get to know your audience. “What do they want to hear? You need to connect to their stories as well as know what’s important to them. Remember, this speech has to resonate with them in order to be memorable. If you know nuances about your clients, use that to your advantage, because that will really stick with them. One of my professors used to call that ‘How to hell.’ It’s the things you mention that make people say, ‘How the hell did she know that about me?’” As far as speech content, Manek says to, “Load your speeches with concrete details. During a speech when Obama addressed unemployment, he talked about handing out pink slips. That stuck out in people’s minds; it gave them a detailed picture to remember.” 

Regarding visual aids, Manek advises that PowerPoint is there to help, but it should never take over. “Don’t put every word up on the screen. In college, sometimes profs would do that, put their lectures up on the screen. Soon, everyone is copying from the screen and tuning them out. If you’re going to use visual aids, you want them to support you. You also never want a visual aid that hints at things you can’t really speak to. Sometimes slides generate questions in the audience that you can’t answer - You should keep the message inside you, not in your slides.”

Ultimately, mastering public speaking is about psyching yourself up, not out. “When it comes down to it, public speaking is really about attitude. Take on the boxer mentality. Think to yourself, ‘I’m the baddest mofo out here.’ Speaking, it should ultimately just flow. If you do your homework, you won’t think; it will just happen.” Manek’s biggest advice on being a better presenter? “Public speaking is like swimming. Just get in the pool. If someone offers you the chance to present, dive in.”

To book Meera Manek for assistance with an upcoming presentation or to help you hone the craft of public speaking, email her at She will also be offering a Find Your Voice workshop with YWTF-Atlanta in March. Stay tuned for more details.

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1 comment:

  1. In my personal experience from years of training and keynote speaking, I would say preparation and eye contact can be narrowed down as being in the Top Three of importance when it comes to public speaking.

    There are techniques anyone can learn that can make a beginner look like a pro. As for the boys and girls thing, it is a fact that males are more performance oriented. To males, it is actually worse to do something that is nerve-wracking in front of those he knows. He does not derive support from that the way females do.

    There's a lot of science and psychology to it all.

    Google: Divine Knowledge Transfer