Speaking in Public

When I was young, I used to dread speaking in public. I would shake when the spotlight was on me. It was out of my control. I kept thinking that the next time might be different. I would try not to drink coffee on the day that I would need to speak. But that just left me with a headache and shaky hands that distracted me and everyone else from anything that I had to say.

But then, years later, I heard my dad make a presentation. It was for an honorary chair at his hospital. He went up to the podium, and he was funny. He didn't stumble. I asked him afterwards how he did it. Was he just talking off the top of his head? It seemed to me like he was. But he told me his secret. He practiced. When he was in his car driving around, he would be rehearsing what he was going to say.

I happened to be involved with a women entrepreneurs' networking group at the time, one where you could sign up to make presentations. After I talked to my dad, I volunteered to speak. And I did just what he told me. I wrote out what I wanted to say, and then I said it over and over again while I drove in my car. When the time came, I was steady, and people liked my talk. I found that I actually enjoyed doing it.

So I signed up for more presentations with this group. After my first novel came out, I volunteered to speak at the local Rotary Club. When I became active in the Young Writers Program in Santa Cruz, mentoring student writers, I was always happy to speak in front of the groups.

And this year, since moving to Sonora, I've been a leader for the Odd Fellows Cemetery tour. I made a video for an Indiegogo campaign, where I spoke on the power of audiobooks. I've talked about being a writer at a Tuolumne County Historical Society meeting, and last night I presented a talk on Robert Burns at the Burns Supper.

As an introvert, it's surprising to me that this is something that I really like to do. I find that with each presentation, I feel more confident. I don't have to recite my speech as many times as I used to, although I do still need to practice quite a bit. Here are some things I've learned:

  1. When I'm brainstorming a speech, I use the cluster approach, where I write single words or ideas all over a page and circle them and connect them to other words that seem to belong together. When I first started public speaking, I then wrote my presentation out linearly. I no longer do that. I sometimes write down my ideas in list form to figure out the sequence, but then I just start talking it out. In that way, I figure out where my stumbles are, what works and what doesn't.

  2. Try not to expect anything. Sometimes I feel that a line is funny, and I think people will laugh, and they may just smile. That's all right. Keep going.

  3. My hands no longer shake. But when I am having fun and excited in a presentation they can fly around. I am not Italian. I've been told that I'd be a natural to learn ASL. Perhaps at some point, I'll work on minimizing my hand gestures. But right now, I'm letting them do their thing.

  4. Honesty really works. People appreciate it when they think you're being real with them.

  5. Respect the time: Know long your presentation is supposed to be and conform to that time limit. Your audience will have a built-in sense of how long your presentation should be. It may be stated in the program. It may be a weekly or monthly part of their agenda. People will be frustrated or annoyed if you go long. And that's hard because I often have much more material than I can use in a given time. You have be willing to use your editor brain and be brutal. You have to prioritize what are the most important things you need to say.

And, maybe like me, you will see that it's something that you really enjoy doing. Maybe you too will start dreaming up places where you can speak next.