Have you ever had to get up in front of a room full of people to speak and found yourself getting sweaty, feeling waves of jitters and nausea roll over you as your mind goes blank? Public speaking can cause even the most stoic and calm among us to want to run for the hills.
According to the National Social Anxiety Center, the fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, affects upward of 74 percent of the American population. That’s a lot of people who get nervous at the thought of having to speak in front of others. As it turns out, with a little bit of preparation and a desire to do well, anyone can speak with confidence in front of a crowd.
Bangor Metro reached out to three well-known Mainers who have mastered the art of public speaking, and they gave several truly fabulous tips.
Don’t be afraid to go off script
One of the biggest fears of public speaking is that you might say the wrong thing during your talk. Crystal Ponti, a freelance journalist and host of history podcast Historium Unearthia, thinks slip-ups are golden moments that make your talk even better.
“While it helps to have a clear and structured plan and a script, things can sound a little robotic when you don’t sway from your prepared remarks,” Ponti told Bangor Metro. “As I’m speaking, I always gauge audience response. Did something specific cause a visible or verbal reaction? A laugh? A collective nod? If so, I try to add more of that to my presentation. It might be a little comedic outtake or maybe something specific or unique to that audience or location.”
During a recent public talk at a library that was said to be haunted, Ponti found herself in an unusual situation when her talk suddenly derailed.
“When there was a loud noise in the background, I immediately asked the ghost to reserve his questions until the end. This caused quite an uproar. It also gave me an opportunity to plug the latest episode of my podcast, which was a New England ghost story,” Ponti explained. “So, look for cues, and don’t be afraid to go off script. If you have practiced and are well prepared, going off script is not as daunting as it sounds.”
Practice makes perfect
The fear of having your mind go blank during a talk is enough to make anyone nervous. That’s why WABI TV5 News Anchor and Reporter Catherine Pegram recommends creating a plan and practicing it.
“Write an outline or key points you want to cover following the storytelling format of beginning, middle and end. You’ll be less nervous when you know what you want to say, as opposed to wingin’ it,” Pegram said, adding that the next step is to start talking.
“Practice the speech out loud — preferably in front of someone who can offer you support. If that’s not possible, try it out in front of a mirror or maybe in a room of stuffed animals to give you the feel of an audience,” Pegram said. “Whatever venue you choose, going over your speech out loud is key. Your ears can catch mistakes or parts you’d like to change better than your eyes can, sometimes. After all, that’s how the audience will receive the message, too – through their ears.”
Dr. Steve Smith, also known as McKay, former meteorologist for WLBZ-Bangor and now a professor of public speaking at Husson University, agrees. He adds that people should think about public speaking in the same vein of athletes, musicians or teachers: They each must practice their craft in order to be amazing.
“Repetition is key. In addition, knowing your topic is critical,” Smith said. “While it is important to organize information before presenting it, the key to public speaking is not to memorize a script. The key to public speaking, particularly in ‘real time’ is to be deeply familiar with your topic, then trust that you will be able to deliver that information to an audience.”
Quick tips for the speaking part
Smith suggested that a few key strategies can help make your talk go smoothly. The first strategy? Slow down.
“Nervousness tends to kick our pace into high gear, which is not helpful. Use a deliberate, even pace,” Smith said.
Smith also suggested that speakers be sure to make regular, albeit not constant eye contact with audience members as this show good body language. But watch out for nervousness.
“Be aware that nervousness always manifests itself in some way physically. For some, it’s wringing of hands, for some it’s adjusting clothing, for some it’s shifting back and forth,” Smith explained. “This physical manifestation usually happens without even being aware of it. So as you are practicing, take note of how nervousness might be ‘exiting’ from your body. Being aware of it is the first step to eliminating it.”
Give yourself a pep talk
You’ve researched and organized, written your speech, and you’ve practiced in front of your friends and your dog. Now what?
“I highly recommend the power pose or, as some experts call it, the Wonder Woman pose,” Ponti shared. “Right before you speak, stand tall and place your hands on your hips. Puff out your chest, take a deep breath, and smile. Then remind yourself that you belong there, that you have something worthwhile to say, and that your audience is excited to hear from you.”
You could even remind yourself that the experience of public speaking lends itself well to other important skills in your life.
“Building your public speaking skills can give you a general sense of confidence as you move about your day,” Pegram points out. “And it can help you handle a variety of situations in life that may be nerve-wracking, from a conversation with an employer that could lead you to a new job opportunity to resolving a dispute when a company tries to overcharge you. You learn how to get your point across and do it with self-assurance.”
Tell yourself that you are ready, you are capable, and you are pumped. Then get out there and deliver your awesome talk. With enough preparation and practice, you can get over your glossophobia and become one of the 10 percent of the American population who loves public speaking.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s March 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Husson University.