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October 31, 2007 > Counseling Corner

Counseling Corner

How to make a great speech (in spite of yourself)

By Anne Chan, M.S., MFT

It's Halloween season - time for spooky nights, chills and thrills, dares and scares. Speaking of scary stuff, do you know what Americans fear the most? According to some surveys, the fear of public speaking is the #1 fear in America, with fear of death ranking second. Putting these facts together, it appears that many Americans, if they had to attend a funeral, would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy!

It may surprise you that I do not help my psychotherapy clients overcome their fears. Rather, I help them manage their fears and get comfortable with the role of fear in their bodies. I use the word "manage" because I believe that fear plays an important role in our lives. Back in the day when we were cave-people in danger of being gobbled up by lions or trampled by rampaging rhinos, our fear response told us when to run. This is the exact same response that is triggered when we face an audience of seemingly hostile people. Fear is built into our bodies for a very specific and useful purpose - to help us survive as a species.

Thus, having a fear of public speaking is a natural and normal response. It is extremely difficult to do away with this response because it is an automatic reflex. However, there are ways to get comfortable with this response and use your added adrenaline to your advantage.

I have been teaching and giving public presentations since 1991 and my heart still races when I have to talk in front of a group of people. However, I use specific strategies to calm my nerves and help me deliver a great speech. Here are some of the techniques that I use that you can try for yourself:

Be yourself
Don't be afraid to be who you are, acknowledge your limitations, and even joke about yourself. Most people set themselves up for failure because they think they have to be perfect. They think they have to speak like news anchors or talk show hosts. This is an unrealistic and unnecessary standard. In fact, audiences generally warm up to you if you are genuine, and the only way to do this is to be yourself.

Don't obsess about your nervousness and anxiety.
You don't have to hide your fear. Being upfront about your insecurities can actually make you seem more likeable and down-to-earth. People understand if you are nervous - they too would be nervous if they were in your shoes.

Remind yourself that feeling nervous is natural and normal.
Tell yourself that your nervousness means that your flight/fight response is in good working order. Embrace your nervousness rather than fight it.

Make a clear outline of your talk with the top three or five points that you want to make. Rehearse your main three to five points. Another wonderful resource for improving your public speaking skills is Toastmasters International. There are many Toastmasters clubs available all over the world, each providing a supportive and fun atmosphere to improve your public speaking.

I always try out a new technique or strategy before recommending them to my clients. In the spirit of being a willing guinea pig, I visited a local Toastmasters meeting on a recent barmy Wednesday evening. Albert Mo, the President of the Star Search Toastmasters Club in Newark, assured me that this is the friendliest club around. He made good on his promise. Right from the get-go, I felt a genuine warm welcome from the members of this club.

The meeting provides a variety of entertaining and educational ways to practice giving speeches. The night I attended, two members delivered speeches they had prepared beforehand. There was also time allocated for giving impromptu speeches on fun topics like, "If you could have one superpower, which one would you choose?"

I have unequivocal feelings about meetings - I like them just about as much as a cat likes a bath. Hence, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself having a great time at the meeting. I can certainly report that attending the meeting gave me a lot of insight as to how to speak clearly.

But I got even more than I'd anticipated at the meeting -- I thoroughly enjoyed the company of the members. Their warmth, support, friendliness, and camaraderie were infectious.

But wait, there's more! I learned that joining Toastmasters has additional hidden benefits. According to Vedant Bhangale, a member since July 2007, being a Toastmaster has enabled him to meet people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, learn about different cultural speaking styles, and hear personal stories from people all over the world. To my surprise, he also noted that attending these meetings has taught him about organizational and punctuality skills. Diana Wilkotz, V.P. of Public Relations, cited two more benefits: developing and fine-tuning one's listening skills and leadership skills.

To check out the Star Search Toastmasters Club I attended, visit them online at www.starsearchtm.org, or in person at the Newark Library, 6300 Civic Terrace Ave., Newark. They meet from 7 - 9 p.m. on Wednesdays. This club also has a special Guest Night at the Newark Library on Wednesday, Nov. 7, from 7 - 9:15 p.m., with a special Ice Cream Social from 8:30 - 9:15 p.m. I highly encourage you to check them out for a fun and informative evening. Not only will you get free ice cream, you will also meet some great folks and hone your public speaking skills too.

There are also plenty of other Toastmaster clubs from Hayward through Milpitas and beyond. To find more clubs, visit http://www.toastmasters.org/

I agree with Albert that one has to face one's fear and practice in order to manage one's fear of public speaking. It is unavoidable that one has to actually speak in public in order to get beyond one's fear.

The good news is that you don't have to suffer needlessly or be traumatized as you learn to give speeches and presentations. Toastmasters is a fun and supportive forum to do just this.


Anne Chan is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. She specializes in helping people find maximum satisfaction in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at achan@midlabs.com.

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