Addressing a group of people in a formal, structured setting is public speaking—whether the delivery comes from behind a podium, across a conference table, leaning over a speaker phone or using a webcam. Which means participants in any form of business meeting can get the jitters.
According to Grant, speaking while anxious may cause you to emote through facial expressions. You may have a “furrowed brow that seems fixed on your face, or you may have a smile that seems frozen on your lips.” These expressions typically are unconscious and may erode a speaker’s credibility or authenticity.
Grant calls it “speaking spin.” You feel uncomfortable so you lay out detail after detail in an effort to show your material is grounded in information. This stream of detail, however, can have the opposite effect, creating a flood of verbiage that drowns your audience’s comprehension.
In the same vein as babbling, “stiff talk” is an unconscious drive to shore up feelings of insecurity by adding complexity. This effort manifests in increasingly long sentences glued together by empty words such as “um”, “er” and “ah.” Just like strained facial expressions and babbling, the net effect on listeners can be distraction to the point of disconnection.
All three of Grant’s signs should be all too familiar to anyone who attends business meetings on a regular basis, whether in person, by phone or over the web. The dread of public speaking is so prevalent that it qualifies as “America’s biggest phobia,” according to a study covered by The Washington Post.
So many speakers suffer from pre-performance butterflies that there’s an abundance of recommendations for coping with this anxiety. The trick is not all this guidance works for everyone. In fact, some popular techniques can be counterproductive. Here are a few fresh takes on some well-worn wisdom regarding public speaking:
1. Practice Makes Perfection—or Paralysis
Experts agree that preparation is important—and they agree there are good ways to practice and bad ones. For example, practicing in front of a mirror is misguided effort, according to speaking guru Michelle Mazur, Ph.D. “This turns the focus of the presentation on you and makes you self-conscious. Presentations are NEVER about you!” Mazur wrote in a recent post for The Official SlideShare Blog.
Columnist Jeannie Krill warns against the “drill and kill” approach in her piece for the HubSpot Blog. When we memorize material, we can miss the point, she wrote: “We simply focus on the words in a sentence and the exact order, repeating the sequence numerous times until we can recite the exact sentence in order. Memorization sometimes hinders understanding a sentence and really understanding the message you are trying to get across.”
2. Ease Tension with Your Delivery—but Don’t Create It
When a gag falls flat on stage, stand-up comics call it “dying” (which should be all the information anyone needs to convince them to avoid opening any business speech, discussion or presentation with a joke). “Audiences remember most what they hear first. If your joke bombs, your listeners are going to remember you flopping,” Mazur wrote. “Let humor naturally occur.”
Speaking at a rhythmic pace calms and focuses you – and your audience – according to Grant. “Rhythm helps you speak in short phrases, not long and complex sentences,” she advised in her Fast Company post. “Getting into rhythm will help ensure that you don’t get out of sync with your speaking and start using ‘ahs’ and ‘ers’.”
3. Anticipate Their Questions—Beginning with the Most Important One
Basic courses in journalism train reporters to answer the “5 Ws” – Who, What, Where, When and Why. The problem with this technique for addressing a meeting is the sequence. In a business setting, time is often limited. So, covering Who, When and Where for an audience can waste valuable attention span. Front-loading with a lot of What can lose people, too. Strategic communications advisor Stephanie Scotti encourages speakers to start by answering Why in a recent post to the SmartBlog on Leadership:
“WHY are you trying to give listeners new information/shape their opinion/motivate them to act? And WHY should they care? People will respond to your core message when they can understand the thoughts, reasons and beliefs behind it.”
How do you feel about public speaking, either in person or using conferencing services? What tips can you share with our readers?