By Adrian Kuek Director of Special Curriculum, Mind Stretcher
When 11-year-old Addison Gan started his speech in his lazy deadpan voice, many in the audience were ready to dismiss his performance. It became clear though, by the time Addison finished, that he had delivered the speech of the day. With his inimitable brand of sarcastic humour delivered with a poker-face, Addison had the 100-strong audience comprising his peers and their parents chortling throughout his three-and-a-half minute speech.
For the first time perhaps, everyone who had showed up for the Final Presentation of Mind Stretcher’s Public Speaking Course was paying full attention to the speaker.
Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, reportedly afflicts over 70% of the population. Like all phobias, the fear can be so overwhelming it completely incapacitates a person. Your heart starts beating faster, your hands turn cold and you turn pale. You start stuttering and then the anxiety gets so bad your mind goes blank. In short, glossophobia reduces its victim to a bumbling fool in front of his or her audience.
Just what exactly makes public speaking so scary? Below are some reasons offered by participants of the MS Public Speaking Course:
“I’m afraid of saying something wrong and appearing stupid.” “I get nervous when every person in the room is looking at me.” “I’m afraid people will find me boring.”
All those statements are simply different ways of articulating the same fundamental fear: the fear of being unfavourably judged by others.
Building confidence in speaking
As a student, how often do you pretend to look down at your textbook or shoelaces when the teacher asks, “Now class, what are your views on this?” Granted, you are probably within your rights to study your shoelaces if you do not know the answer to a mathematics question, but that was an open-ended question. Or have you ever, in the midst of posing a question to the teacher, suddenly clam up because you realised that all eyes were on you? If one does not even have the courage to speak in front of 30 people (all of whom are friends for that matter), how could one expect to do the same in front of hundreds or thousands (of whom most are strangers)?
Like all skills, the ability to speak confidently is something that can be developed through practice. It really is no different from the process that one would go through to master academic subjects like Mathematics or Science. The classroom is actually a perfect training ground. Whenever there is a class discussion, do not shy away from speaking up if you have a genuine opinion to offer. Look at your classmates: are those who are more vocal during class discussions less likely to freeze up when they have to make a presentation in front of the class?
So, start small and do not restrict yourself to the classroom. Family gatherings, CCA meetings or any kind of social function offer many opportunities for one to speak up and in the process, build up one’s confidence.
With repeated exposure, you will soon be at ease speaking in front of 30 people, then 50, then 100, then 200…
From speaking up to public speaking
Public speaking is the act of delivering an address to an audience in a structured manner intended to inform, influence or entertain them. As you can see from the mouthful of a definition, public speaking is a little bit more complicated than simply speaking up in front of an audience.
Besides confidence, great public speaking entails two major components: great content and great delivery.
Content If the topic you have been tasked to lecture on is “The Mathematics Behind Rocket Propulsion Engine”, it is understandable that you would probably be quaking in your boots. Indeed, everybody, except the scientists at NASA, would be making up excuses about not being able to make it on the day of the lecture. Our level of confidence in being able to give a speech on a particular subject is linked to our level of mastery over the subject. When you really know your stuff, it would surface in the way you speak. So, make sure you do your homework before you step up to the podium. Nobody wants to listen to somebody who does not know what he is talking about.
The topic that Addison was assigned to give a speech on was “What I am most terrified of”. He gave the topic a twist by talking instead about how he overcame his fear of horror movies by focusing on clichéd plot elements that were more silly than scary. Then he went on to offer survival tips for those who should find themselves being chased by a chainsaw-wielding psychopath one day. It was original, refreshing, funny and unexpected. In short, Addison delivered great content.
Surviving Being Chased by a Psychopath adapted from Addison Gan’s speech “What I Am Most Terrified Of”
Delivery Great content, no matter how insightful or funny, will fall on deaf ears if the speaker fails to capture the audience’s attention. To put it bluntly, the audience ignores boring speakers for most parts of their speeches (admit it, you do too!).
Humour may be a universal ice-breaker that gets the audience to like you immediately, but it is not a skill that everybody can cultivate. Other elements of delivery, however, cannot only be mastered with little effort, but are absolutely necessary to ensure that your audience do not start fiddling with their smartphones. What are they?
The first thing is to make sure that the audience can hear you clearly. This means projecting your voice and enunciating your words properly. Doing so also conveys confidence, energy and enthusiasm. Vary your rhythm, pace, volume and intonation: slow down and speak in a sombre tone when communicating an important point, or raise your voice and speak in an animated manner when building up to the climax of a story. Hand gestures can lend emphasis at appropriate junctures; indeed arms hanging limply at a speaker’s sides could convey disinterest or nervousness.
Project a likeable personality. This is mainly achieved through your body language. Smile more and establish eye contact with your audience. Adopt a neutral body posture and speak in a pleasant voice. What impression would you have of a speaker who shouts at his audience and has his arms crossed throughout his speech?
Do not read word for word from a script. If you do so, you might as well print out the speech and distribute copies to your audience for them to read it themselves. Reading word for word from a script limits eye contact with your audience and does not convey the same measure of confidence. Note down what you want to communicate in bullet points and practise elaborating on them at home.
Did I mention that Addison’s speech was delivered without a single scrap of paper in his hand?
Practice makes perfect!
Unless you are a naturally gifted speaker, you would need practice. Stand in front of a mirror with your bullet points or better yet, record yourself on video as you go through your entire speech from start to finish. Did you find yourself engaging? Which areas could you improve on? Get a third party’s opinion – ask your family and friends for their frank feedback and work on the areas they found less than polished.
That said, no amount of preparation in front of a mirror beats practising in front of a live audience. The mirror does not give you the kind of stress a live audience does. No matter if you are bad the first time round. Or even the second time round. As with that challenging mathematics topic, as long as you practise and make an effort to improve, the day will come when you become a confident public speaker!
To find out more about Mind Stretcher’s exciting and fun enrichment programmes, please like Mind Stretcher Learning Centre on Facebook or visit www.mindstretcher.com.