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Speaking of Nerves

Public speaking is often one of our greatest fears—but it doesn’t have to be

Speaking of Nerves

“Speaking in front of a crowd is the number one fear of the average person. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”
—Jerry Seinfeld

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely ascended to a position that requires you occasionally stand up in front of a bunch of people—friends, Romans, countrymen, and the like—and say something intelligent or persuasive. Could be a sales pitch. Could be a presentation. Could be a panel discussion at G2E. Could be an impromptu adieu at someone’s retirement party. Could be, well jeez, it could be anything that requires: A) You opening your mouth; and B) Others opening their ears.

And it could be, as Seinfeld says, the most terrifying thing you’ll ever do.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Speaking in public, like changing a flat tire or solving a Rubik’s Cube or baking a cake, is all about the process. The steps. The recipe. The tricks of the trade that, when followed, stifle anxiety in a way a dozen Valium never could. You want to turn yourself into a lean, mean talking machine? It’s as easy as 1-2-3. Or more aptly, 50%, 30%, 20%.


50 Percent Is Non-Verbal

Half of your effectiveness as a speaker, believe it or not, has got zip-a-dee-doo-dah to do-dah with your speaking. Instead, it has to do with your poise, posture, and attitude (aka, stage presence).

You’ve got to own the room, and to do that, don’t do this: Don’t shuffle your feet. Don’t blink excessively. Don’t hunch over or lean against the podium. Don’t turn your back. Don’t fold your arms. Don’t look at your shoes. Don’t look at the ceiling. Don’t clasp your hands in front of your crotch like you’re David Beckman in the soccer wall, or put them on your hips like you’re Yul Brynner in The King and I.


Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

If you’ve got to move around, do so with purpose. Search an old Chris Rock or an older Richard Pryor performance on YouTube. Those guys didn’t aimlessly ambulate. They prowled around the stage to get close to the audience, making sure everyone was alert and attentive.


30 Percent Is Your Voice

You don’t need to sound like Morgan Freeman or Liev Schrieber or Don LaFontaine (the “in a world” guy from the movie trailers), but vocal quality is the second-most important element in public speaking.

Your voice is an instrument, and to capture and enrapture the audience, you must give a virtuoso performance. Want to keep the crowd on the tip of your tongue? Try these:

First, speak up. Do a perimeter check. Make sure those in the back row and far aisles can hear without straining. This may sound obvious, but many a presentation has been doomed from the start by a deficit of decibels.

Second, stick a fork in those pesky “ums” and “ahs.” Next time you give a presentation, have someone in the audience count the number of times you lean against these oral crutches. Either that or have him zap you with a cattle prod.

Third, mix it up. Good speakers steer clear of the monotone zone by shuffling their pitch and volume and cadence. Sometimes. They. Talk. Slow. Ly. And other times theytalkfast. High and low. Soft and loud. They use different voices when telling a story. They pause to let the audience digest what was just said, or to create—wait for it—anticipation of what is coming next.


20 Percent Is What You Say

While public speaking is indeed more about the medium than the message, what you say still matters. Just not as much as you think. One hour, one day, one week after you’ve spoken, people tend to forget pretty much all but a few details. Case in point: Did you see the latest Dave Chappelle special on Netflix? Wasn’t it hilarious? Yes. Wasn’t it awesome? Absolutely. What did he say? Uh, gee, um, er . . .

Yeah, exactly. No one remembers.

The best way to start your presentation is with a story that’s relevant to the topic. Talking about innovation? Tell the story of how Pfizer created Viagra by accident. Talking about perseverance? Tell the story of how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Talking about talking? Tell the story of how England’s King George VI overcame paralyzing stage fright—and an even more paralyzing stammer—in his worldwide radio address that declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939.

And the best way to keep your presentation moving is to remain slideless. Or as slideless as you can. PowerPoint, like cinnamon, is used best when used sparingly. The text, the charts, the graphs are more hindrance than help. On the few slides you use, use as few words as possible. The last thing your audience wants to do is read your presentation, and the second last thing it wants to do is listen to you read your presentation.

As for the end, there is no set way to wrap things up. You can thank the audience and solicit questions. You can circle back to a reference made earlier in the talk, especially if it’s something poignant. You can even drop the mic and walk offstage.

But whatever you do, don’t wait all day to do it. You must be careful not to overstay your welcome. Shakespeare said it’s better to be three hours too soon than a minute too late. True that. And likewise, in the world of public speaking, it’s better to be three minutes too short than a second too long.

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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