Taking the Edge Off: The First 60 Seconds of Public Speaking


Imagine a crowd of people is suddenly looking at you… in silence.

They are watching… waiting… listening for what you are going to say next.

The appearance (or imagined appearance) of so many eyes gazing at you… little dark circles on white orbs which, despite the minute angles involved, you can tell are pointed in your direction…. these black-on-white dots are processed by your brain and set off a chain reaction of signals to the body:  Release more adrenaline!  Increase the heart rate! Reduce blood flow to the cerebral cortex! Tighten the skin and muscles! Circulate blood to the interior of the body!  Fight! Flee!

The problem here is that you are about to deliver a public speech, but your body thinks you’re about to have an encounter with a sabertoothed tiger.

Many people “choke” when they are asked to stand up and deliver a formal presentation or speech.  The adrenaline spike is too much for them and they just freeze.  This is normal biological functioning which requires practice to overcome.

A smaller number of people — usually, the more experienced speakers and presenters — have it a bit easier…  but they too are subject to the adrenaline rush of having many eyes pointed at them.  For them, the adrenaline spike makes them “excited” instead of “scared,” and that can be a problem if the excitement means “losing control”  instead of “radiating enthusiasm.”   Hence the occurrence of trained (aka “natural”) speakers rambling — getting ahead of themselves and their audience — when they first stand up to deliver a formal presentation or speech.

Whether you are a newbie speaker or a master presenter, you’ve got about 30 to 60 seconds of this to get through… if you’re lucky.  During that time, for the sake of yourself and your audience, you don’t want to get derailed.

Here are some things that you can do about it:

  1. Well before performing: Practice the Opening
  2. Immediately before performing: Alter Your State
  3. At the outset of performing:  Set the Tone

1) Practice the Opening

During your first minute of speaking in public, the adrenaline spike that you experience will likely reduce your cognitive functioning. We don’t think well under stress… particularly if it’s the kind of stress we experience when facing a group that we consider unfamiliar (e.g. large new audience)  or judgmental (e.g. audience of experts… and for some people, peers).   The opening of a presentation is not a time to be thinking… or improvising. 

So the key here is to always rehearse your opening 60 seconds of any presentation, out loud, multiple times, until it enters your “muscle memory” and becomes “fluid” or “natural.”

What is “fluid” speech?  Try saying your mobile phone number out loud, right now.  Assuming you’re a mobile phone user and haven’t recently changed your number, you probably said it very fluidly. Now try saying your phone number a few times while placing some extra emphasis or emotion on different particular numbers.  Notice how easy it is to control the tone and tenor of your voice when the content is flowing.

Got a little extra time?  Great… practice the rest of the presentation too… especially the ending. Oh, you don’t have extra time?  Too bad.  Make time.  Practice.

Also: Consider using good two-dimensional visual notes that you can easily glance at with your eyes, as you practice your speech/presentation.  This will help you further familiarize yourself with your presentation content and structure by utilizing both auditory and visual memory.

2) Alter Your State

Rehearsal is important for building “muscle memory” …but that happens well before the time of presenting.  I know many experienced presenters who refuse to rehearse in the time leading up to the performance, because the rehearsal makes them more apprehensive.  I don’t disagree with them.  In fact, immediately before presenting — as the stress of presenting starts to build —  is, for many people, not a good time to be learning things or trying to commit them to memory.  Instead, immediately before performing, it’s a good for a presenter de-stress and bring themselves into a more relaxed, focused, resourceful state.

How to alter your state?  It’s a mind-body thing.

Mind:

Try laughing. Read something that will make you laugh, right before you present, in order to give yourself an endorphin rush.  Nothing modifies the brain chemistry better than a good ‘ol soak in humor-driven endorphins.

Sometimes before a big presentation I think about something funny that recently happened or that I saw… even reliving a favorite movie/video clip… or simply listening to a favorite song.  If I can induce in myself a belly laugh or an ear-to-ear grin, I’m good to go.

Related to this:  There’s an old public speaking “tip”  that says, “imagine your audience naked.”   At first, I couldn’t figure out the intent behind that concept… and figured it was just a mythical piece of advice.  I mean, seriously. why the heck would you want to imagine your audience naked??  To be aroused or repelled?? To “knock them down a peg,” in some weird insecure way?  Well, I think I now understand… it’s a humor thing.  For some people, the imagined disrobing of their audience will lead to great amusement.   Okay. If that’s what floats your boat… go for it.

That said, by the time you’re facing the audience, you’re probably already being observed and therefore already in “performance mode.”  Therefore, all au naturel audiences aside, better to begin modifying your mood even earlier on.

Body:

Breathe, my friend… BREATHE, my pasty friend, just like in the old Halls commercial…. in through the nose, out through the mouth… exhale and feel the stress melt away… this relaxation signal is what your brain needs to counter the alarm of all-those eyeballs-staring-at-you.

Good breathing technique also helps give your better vocal energy… a deeper, projecting voice that conveys confidence to the audience.

What’s even better than breathing well?   Breathe well while standing in powerful posture.  Do this in a private space if you must, in the minutes leading up to the performance.  Stand straight with your head high, your feet apart and your hands on your hips. Walk around.  Sit in a way that says, “This is my space and I own it.”   There is some very compelling research that shows how changing your posture to a so-called “power pose,” for as little as 120 seconds, can significantly alter your brain chemistry.

Here’s an excellent talk by Amy Cuddy about this…. seventeen minutes and well worth watching:

(HT DRZ)

Finally, pay attention to what you do and what you eat — if you don’t already do that all the time — in the period of time leading up to the presentation. Did you get some cardiovascular exercise in the last 12 hours?  What about food? How about your blood-sugar levels?  Blood-caffeine levels? Blood-alcohol… um, if you’re presenting, let’s keep that at a zero.  I try to manage these things as best as I can, though admittedly my schedule sometimes does not permit it. I’ve presented under conditions of having no sleep, no food, no caffeine, too much sleep, too much food, too much caffeine, you name it… even still, I try to manage my physiology as best I can, since it makes the whole experience more enjoyable for everyone if I can get myself into a really good state of “flow.”

3) Set the Tone

The presentation is starting now.  You’ve rehearsed, you’ve gotten yourself into a good resourceful state and now you want to get things going on the right foot… you don’t want to succumb to the “OMG THEY’RE ALL LOOKING AT ME” panic.

Here’s the key:  Make it not about you.

As you’re opening the presentation, the thing to do is to get out of your own head and achieve some external focus and interest — as opposed to internal focus and anxiety.  Place all your attention on the audience and your message.   That’s what you’re here to do.   As Peter Ustinov once said,

“It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.”

One common way to do this is to get some dialogue going from the outset.  “How is everyone doing today?”  is the overused and only-sometimes-effective approach taken by speakers… there are any number of good audience-prompts that you can develop. A simple approach in highly formal presentations where you are given an introduction by someone — usually to a very large audience —  is to engage in banter with the person who introduced you to the audience, e.g. a quick thank you and maybe some very brief back-and-forth conversation.  A short dialogue will put everyone at ease in those crucial initial moments of the presentation, get you out of your own head and bring your focus to the audience and the moment.

If possible, try to mingle with the crowd prior to the presentation, get to know them as people instead of mere spectators with eyes looking to scrutinize. The people are participants in your public conversation… they are on your side and want to partake in an enjoyable experience. Get to know them that way.

Another thing to do, just as you’re kicking things off, is to adopt an attitude of gratitude.  Find something to be grateful for — the audience, the place, the topic — and find a way to authentically express that gratitude.  Gratitude is an excellent way to get over yourself…. and besides, people prefer listening to grateful people… and you will prefer being a grateful person, too.

In summary:

1) Well before performing: Practice the Opening

2) Immediately before performing: Alter Your State

3) At the outset of performing:  Set the Tone

You’re ready to go… and you’re a star.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on December 24, 2011, in Communication Skills and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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