Applications / Self awareness

Can’t do public speaking?

Does the idea of standing up to do a talk or presentation terrify you? You’re not alone, your fear even has a name, Glossophobia. According to one source up to 75% of the population suffer from it. The good news is that you can learn to overcome your terrors. I have just heard leading linguistic specialist David Crystal talk at the Hay Festival and here are some of his top tips.


Remember everyone is naturally eloquent

carton_speaker200If you’re glossphobic you’re probably not going to believe this. Crystal argues that eloquence is a broad notion, it’s not about whether you’ve got the right accent or know all the long words, it’s about the everyday. You can talk to your friends. You can talk to people you meet and engage with whenever you’re out and about. Ok, so you can talk to a larger group of people in more formal circumstances too. The difference is only around experience and getting over your nerves. The two main distinctions between everyday conversation and presentation are preparation and rehearsal. Some really famous orators have talked about the imperative of good preparation:

But impromptu speaking—that is what I was trying to learn. That is a difficult thing. I used to do it in this way. I used to begin about a week ahead, and write out my impromptu speech and get it by heart. Mark Twain

Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art. Oscar Wilde

Perhaps this is the time for a bit of honest reflection. If your presentation terrors relate back to a time when things didn’t go according to plan, could it have been that you hadn’t rehearsed? Don’t make that mistake again. You might want to practise by watching yourself in the mirror, here’s Nowtash talking about just that in terms of interview preparation.


Another alternative is to practise in front of friends, or if your presentation is part of an interview process for a job you might be able to run it through with someone in your careers department. You might even want to record yourself on your phone or tablet. Work out what would be right for you, but don’t try to wing it!

Attention Span

If you’re going to get up and overcome your fears you want to feel that people are actually listening to you. Watching an audience responding to what you are saying and clearly attending will help you to feel more at ease and as you relax you’ll become more fluent. The reverse is true too. If you can see nobody is listening to you, that’s going to ramp up your anxiety levels. So, be aware of how attention spans work. Nobody is listening when you first start talking. They’re fidgeting in their seats, wondering if they switched off their mobiles (or pondering if they want to switch them off). Don’t launch straight in to your presentation, talk about something else – let your audience settle and start to concentrate. Attention span works on cycles. It starts very low, peaks after about 1 minute and then drops off after 5 to 10 minutes and this process is repeated throughout the duration of your talk. Try breaking what you say into those 5 -10 minute chunks and then find a way to give your audience a rest in line with the dip in their concentration levels. Pause, have a drink of water, say something irrelevant to your talk, make a joke, try to get in rhythm with your audience. A final point to remember is that attention peaks as you start to wrap up your talk, don’t forget to recap the key points at this stage.

Don’t turn your back on the audience

Successful business woman present colorful diagram on the text background

Ok, so does this sound a bit obvious? Think again. Have you ever been tempted to turn and look at the PowerPoint you have playing behind you? Surely it’s ok, it stops you having to look at the audience. No, it’s not alright. If you are not looking at your audience you are not engaging them, and if you are just reading off the PowerPoint you might be insulting them too! You don’t need to have the text of your talk up on the screen anyway. If you use your presentation slides to enhance or underline parts of your talk you’ll be less tempted to start reading them!

Avoid mannerism

This one’s a bit trickier. We don’t always know what our mannerisms are, so you might need to ask someone to give you some honest comments. I talk while waving my hands about. It’s fine in conversation but when I’m presenting I keep them under control, too much movement becomes distracting. Other people struggle to keep their bodies still, rocking can mesmerise your audience and stop them listening to you altogether. Verbal tics aren’t great either. If I hear someone overusing “OK” or “Like” I have been known to start timing the number of times the word is used. I got to 57 occurrences of “like” in I minute while timing a conversation going on behind me on a train once! Had that been a presentation I wouldn’t have had a clue what it was about.

Watch your speaking speed

I know I can speak very fast indeed sometimes with friends and I make a conscious effort to slow up when I am presenting. Crystal offers some science on this one. Apparently we should be going for 250 syllables a minute. If you’re a nervous speaker why not count the syllables in a paragraph of text and then read it at your presentation speed and see what rate you are going at. Make sure that you don’t keep going at an absolutely constant rate though, try building in some pauses, perhaps speed a few bits up, you can make use of some hesitation noises “um” works but use it sparingly!

And last, some tricks

Say things in threes, people remember this. Many of you will have been taught to do this in your writing for GCSE English so it might be familiar to you. Don’t just use three adjectives though, make points in threes, or give three examples.
Keep to sentences, don’t lose your verbs in a mass of words and don’t overcomplicate your language. People find it easier to process shorter words and can attend best if you keep to 5 important words per block.
Make your talk modular, it’ll help to deal with the attention span cycle and will also mean that if time starts to run away with you then you can leave one or more modules out without anyone noticing.

Good luck!

With thanks to David Crystal and the Hay Festival.

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