How To Be Better At Public Speaking
Your throat is as dry as dust. Your heart is hammering its way out of your rib cage. Your palms are slippery with sweat. This isn’t the moment before you leap out of a plane, at an altitude of 35,000 feet, in the manner of Mr Tom Cruise, as Ethan Hunt, performing a Halo jump. No, these are the long seconds stretching out into eternity as you stand on your own, before a group of people – all of whom are expecting wise, profound and entertaining words to come out of your mouth. With elocution worthy of Sir Patrick Stewart, of course.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone; according to research conducted by the School of Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, around 75 per cent of us suffer anxiety when it comes to public speaking. For 10 per cent, that anxiety mutates into pure panic. “This is your nervous system going into fight or flight because you’re being stared at by lots of people,” says Ms Caroline Goyder, an author, expert speaker and voice coach to an array of individuals constantly put in the spotlight, including news presenters, actors and FTSE 100 CEOs. “And the primal part of your nervous system is saying it’s not a safe space to be.
“The thing to understand is that you can steer your nervous system out of fight or flight, into rest and digest – the other side of the nervous system. What actors, singers and jazz musicians learn is that you can slow down and centre yourself, so that when you walk out in front of an audience, it feels like you’re in front of your friends.”
Want to stop becoming a shivering wreck every time you’re in a meeting, or giving a best man speech, or wrangling a crowd of unruly children at a birthday party? We speak with Ms Goyder to find out how.
When you enter fight-or-flight mode, everything starts to go downhill – when you desperately just want to get the talk, speech or presentation you’re in the middle of, well, over with. For Ms Goyder, the solution is as simple as understanding the body language of the fight-or-flight response – tense shoulders, a tense jaw, your breath going up into the chest, a speeding up of everything – and adjusting it accordingly in order to trigger the opposite rest-and-digest response. “Relax your shoulders,” says Ms Goyder. “Breathe low and wide, relax your gaze so that it’s peripheral, soften your jaw and tell your system that you’re safe. When you do that, you can speak to anybody and it’ll feel OK – as long as you’ve practised it.”
Fix your text neck
We’re all guilty of what Ms Goyder calls “text neck” – when we lean into our phone screens while checking Instagram, or composing an outrageously witty tweet, so that our heads come forward off our curved spines. As it turns out, this is pretty much the most effective way to kill any confident voice that may have been lurking within you. “Understand the damage that text neck does to your voice,” she says. “It makes your voice thin and flat. If you have a meeting, think ears over shoulders as you walk in. That will really help your voice to be more centred, more powerful, because it positions the larynx in the right place, and it helps you breathe deeply.”
Take time to pause
When we’re speaking in public, there’s often a temptation to just power through. For Ms Goyder, this simply isn’t conducive to clear, confident speech. “All speech is out-breath,” she says, “so a pause is really important, because it’s where you take an in-breath. And the quality of your in-breath, is the quality of your voice.” But it’s not just a case of breathing in in any old way; to ensure your voice has a timbre as rich and vibrant as that of Sir Christopher Lee (or close enough), you need to be taking those in-breaths the right way, and plan your speech to accommodate these pauses. “When you breathe in, it’s good to think low and wide, rather than shallow and high. And that is something to practise,” says Ms Goyder.
Twist your tongue
“If you find that you stumble over your words sometimes, if you lack articulation and clarity, it’s easy to work on,” says Ms Goyder. “In the morning before you go to work, just do a little bit of a tongue twister, just move the mouth around. Maybe say a line, or say the days of the week and really overdo the clarity.” Think Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, instructing Eliza Doolittle to recite “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” 50 times each morning. “If you do that before you get to work,” continues Ms Goyder, “the articulators [your tongue and lips] start to work more accurately, and you’ll start to sound much more clear.”
Project your voice
Let’s face it, some of us simply aren’t blessed with the big, booming voice we’d like. If you’re one of those people whose voice is more, erm, Mickey Mouse than Mufasa (and is constantly bombarded with comments of “Sorry, can you say that again?”), Ms Goyder suggests projecting your voice to the back wall of the room you’re in. “Just imagine that there’s someone at the back of the room that you want to send your voice to,” she says. “And even as you look at the people in the room, maybe they’re sitting around the table in front of you, just have a sense of your voice bouncing back off that wall. That gives you a little bit of easy, relaxed projection, and, often, that gives people a different level of presence.
Illustrations by Mr Thomas Pullin