Public Speaking Is Not Easy, but It's Certainly Doable
If you’ve ever had to make a presentation, you know the anxiety that comes with speaking in public. Even experienced speakers can feel flustered, sweaty, anxious, and apprehensive. That’s a perfectly natural reaction to a seemingly threatening situation. And when you know you’re being evaluated, you feel even more threatened. Your perception of a threat causes you to release adrenal fluids, dilate your pupils, tense your muscles, and provokes a “fight or flight” response. You understand the consequences of not doing well, of failing to impress an audience, or not coming through for a client when it really matters. You know all too well what can go wrong.
Good public speakers tend to focus on what can go right. They concentrate on the positive aspects of their message and how it can benefi t their audience. Once they detect a positive response from their listeners, that perception serves to reinforce a sense of self-confi dence, reassurance, and belief that they can do this.
The fact is, public speaking is a learned skill. It’s not something you’re born with or that comes naturally. You’re certainly born with the propensity to speak and gesture, but given the short range of the human voice, those skills are clearly intended for interpersonal or small-group settings. Speaking to a larger audience is a skill that must be learned, rehearsed, and reinforced through repeated opportunities.
Keep this in mind: Very few small children are great public speakers. So how do young managers (and others) get to be so good at presenting complex information to an audience that has little interest or motivation in learning? More to the point, how do they get the audience to act on the message being shared? The answer, in part, lies in the response to the classic New York pedestrian’s question, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The response? “Practice, practice, practice.”
People with very little natural ability have become exceptional public speakers by the time they reach their twenties and thirties. Great orators, politicians, and business leaders develop professional speaking skills by analyzing both their audience and their purpose for speaking. They prepare meticulously and seek out opportunities to present; then they learn what is effective from the audiences’ feedback.
Every speaker who is honest with you will admit to being anxious or nervous before a presentation. Entertainers and comedians like the late Johnny Carson and David Letterman have talked at length about the anxiety that accompanies a walk onto the stage to perform. There is a subtle difference between them and most speakers-in-training. Experienced presenters use that sense of apprehension to their advantage: They review their notes, they think about what the audience expects of them, they rehearse their opening lines, and they internalize the essence of their message. They are, in a word, prepared.
Great speakers may seem to perform with an ease that makes it all look effortless, but the most honest of them will tell you that it didn’t come easily. It requires dedication, discipline, and a commitment to improve. You can do the same. The moment to begin is now.