Thursday, November 28, 2013

Overcoming Public Speaking Anxiety

Remember when you first learned to drive? You were probably pretty nervous, kept both hands on the wheel, held that wheel tightly, and shied away from highway driving because the sheer speed frightened you. Fast forward to now. You drive with one hand on the wheel (hopefully not with the other one on your cell phone!), zoom down the highway without a second thought, and laugh at how nervous you used to be. What has changed? Driving involves the same simple skills, but your attitude toward it is completely different. You have been transformed by your experience and success as a driver.

Public speaking is a similar endeavor. You will get more confident with experience and success. But there is a fundamental difference. Imagine if no one had ever TAUGHT YOU to drive. Your initial fear would be paralyzing and the results likely to lead to tremendous anxiety and difficulty, if not tragedy.

I find many people in this same situation with public speaking. They have seen others do it, so they have a rough idea of what should be done, but when they see it done masterfully they simply exclaim "I could never do that!". Well of course you couldn't if you have never been taught and had the chance to practice what you have been taught, right?

That's why I am employed. Because people need to be taught how to do this thing we call public speaking and taught how to do it well. So what I am about to share is true and helpful. However, these things alone will not make you a masterful speaker. You will need training for that. What they will do is help to reduce your anxiety a bit or at least help you manage it and use it to your advantage.

1. Know what you are talking about. There is really no substitute for this. If you are not confident in your knowledge of the topic, you will not be confident. It's as simple as that.

2. Approach public speaking with the right attitude and purpose. If you waste your time thinking about how much you dread your upcoming presentation, guess what? You will dread your presentation. The result being a dreadful talk. It is a simple self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, have a clear purpose aimed at improving the lives of your audience. You give a speech for and audience--not for a boss, a grade, or any other reason. Spend the time you have been wasting on fear and dread working on your speech!

3. Know your fundamentals. There is an art to this and there are certain conventions that have been proven to work. Familiarize yourself with them and employ them. A college public speaking course should do it for you. For those with less time, hire a pro. I can teach you in a couple of hours what you will spend four months learning in a college course because it will be tailored for you and your strengths and weaknesses.

4. Practice aloud. Can't emphasize this enough. I have written an entire blog entry on the subject. You really should read it.

5. Avoid stimulants. Caffeine, sugar, energy drinks, etc., will only intensify the adrenalin rush you are going to experience in the first minute or so.

6. For those with really bad problems there are techniques that a professional can share with you such as systematic desensitization, positive visualization, relaxation techniques, and classical conditioning.

7. Breathe. Simple but effective. Breathe deeply. Oxygen has a relaxing effect on the body as it makes its way from your lungs to the bloodstream and  muscles.

8. Or you can just hire someone like myself. Any communication consultant or speech coach worth their salt will be able to take you from frightened novice to fully functioning professional in relatively little time. This isn't rocket science. It's just specialized knowledge that a professional can share with you, not unlike the tax consultant or IT consultant we employ to help us...and every bit as essential to success.

I firmly believe that pretty much anyone can be a good competent speaker. I have seen thousands of students overcome their fear in my public speaking course so I'm very confident you can too. With the right help you CAN do this and eventually do it brilliantly.

That's all for today friends. Until we meet again, be well, speak well, and thank you for reading!

For those interested in learning more about Dan Leyes' consulting work, see Semiosphere Consulting.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Gestures? Keep 'em Real

"What do I do with my hands?" is one of the most common questions I hear from those I teach and coach in public speaking. They are sometimes disappointed by my initial answer, because I tell them to "do what comes naturally", at least as a starting point. They would prefer some definitive answer. They want me to say "do this and that and you will be perfect", as if there were some magical hand dance that if learned, will make them a great speaker.

I am not a fan of choreographing gestures. All too often they look contrived and mechanical, more likely to attract our attention than genuinely support the message. And attracting attention to themselves is something gestures should not do. You want the audience's focus on what you are saying, not on your hand movements.

But I say "as a starting point" because what "comes naturally" to some might be to put their hands in their pockets or play with their hair! Once I have seen them speak I will frequently give specific suggestions, but first I need to get a sense of their nonverbal communication style and how it jibes with their verbal message.

Some people are naturally animated and gesture more than might be ideal, but it works for them. Others rarely use their hands, but when they do it is effective, reflecting a less animated personality type. Folks like this need little coaching. Some might try to tune down the former, and force more gesturing on the latter, but at what cost?

It is my professional opinion that authenticity is what people respond to. Far too many fine speakers have been turned into mechanical shadows of their true selves by consultants touting "power gestures" and the like. In the process they lose the natural quality that truly great speakers possess.

That said, distracting gestures--particularly repetitive ones--must be avoided. I have seen it all in my career. I have seen people decide that during the presentation would be a good time to clean their ears, pop a pimple on their arm, or scratch their privates repeatedly. I kid you not.

When in doubt, it's okay to keep your hands at your sides. That is so much better than folding your arms, or clasping your hands either in front or in back of you. Also, you want to avoid gesturing below the waist. You want to guide the eye toward your upper half, not your lower half.

Video recording is the key to fine tuning the natural style of the speaker. When the speaker sees what he or she does when speaking naturally, the video makes any necessary "repair" obvious and fairly simple to change and master. They just need an honest, knowing eye to help guide them to what works best for them.

So when it comes to gestures, don't look for magic tricks. Record yourself doing what comes naturally. Talk it over with a pro, and just polish it up a bit. You should be spending far more time analyzing your audience and putting together a killer message than you do on gesturing. The goal is always to be yourself, at your best. Run away from people who try to remake you, they will lose the real you in the process.

That's all for today folks. Be well, speak well, and as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting work, see Semiosphere Consulting.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Pathos: Employing the Emotional Appeal

Aristotle, in his seminal work Rhetoric, said there are "...three available means of persuasion". Being Greek, he called these ethos, pathos, and logos. Assuming you don't speak Greek, allow me to translate. Ethos is what we might call speaker credibility. Pathos literally means 'the passions" and is generally translated as emotional appeals. Logos, as you can probably guess, refers to the logical appeal.

In today's post I will focus on pathos. Human beings have the capacity for logical behavior but more often than not, our decisions are based on emotion. While we like to believe that we consciously choose our behavioral path based on sound reasoning and rational decision making, very often we are being moved by more vague forces...feelings. Sometimes we call it intuition or a hunch, more often we just act without a whole lot of conscious choice.

A neat video I saw recently outlined six principles which highlight some of the forces at work in driving our behavioral choices. In each case, the principle in question influences the behavior of most people. They work on us as "shortcuts" to reasoned, logical decision making. Undoubtedly those six features can be used by public speakers in a variety of ways.

But how do we appeal specifically to the emotions of our audience members?

One way is to employ the notion of emotional dissonance. When persuading an audience, I call this creating the "cringe moment" where you introduce some aspect of the status quo that is emotionally upsetting. It should be something unpleasant about the situation which is happening or will happen if we don't adopt your proposal.

A key feature of dissonance is that when we experience it, we want it to stop. So you create it when discussing the "problem" then give the audience some way to assuage the unpleasantness by them adopting your "solution". In that way we get them to take the action we desire of them.

Another way to employ emotional appeals is to tell stories. I have written at length about the benefits of storytelling for public speakers, here, here and here. But it is worth noting that whatever the situation you are trying to change is (and persuasion usually involves some change) we need to put a face on it. It may be a human face or the face of a puppy, but we need real-life examples to make us feel something. Tell stories that will move your audience.

And speaking of putting a face on something, one of the most powerful tools in creating emotional appeals are visual aids. Most people waste the potential of PowerPoint by filling their slides with words. Photos and video are what it is best used for. Want to persuade us to stop texting while driving? SHOW US the wreckage photographs of those who insisted that they could drive and text simultaneously. Want us to adopt a pet from a shelter? SHOW US photographs of the lovable furry little creature who will have to be put down because of overcrowded animal shelters. Want to persuade us to travel to Peru? SHOW US photographs of the natural wonders and bustling street life of that beautiful country. Visual aids are for seeing, not reading. The visual image is emotionally compelling in a way that words can't match.

That's not to say that words can't elicit emotion though. Words have connotations--individual felt-meanings--that can elicit powerful emotional responses. We need to be conscious of our word choices and the feelings they create in the guts of our listeners. Real estate professionals have long known this. The property you are trying to sell is a "house", while the property you may buy will be your "home". And of course a small house will be referred to as a "cozy cottage". The government refers to civilians killed in battle as "collateral damage". And of course our Department of Defense was formerly known as the Department of War, despite no real difference in the functioning of that organization. What we call something can make a tremendous difference in the emotional response it evokes.So choose your words wisely, use your thesaurus, for maximum emotional impact.

One final word of caution on emotional appeals. Don't overdo it. People resent it and will shut down on you if you lay it on too thickly. They sense you are manipulating their feelings and will reject both your message and you.

I apologize for the long post today...I could talk about this stuff for hours (a fact my students know all too well!). But used ethically and in moderation, the emotional appeal is a powerful tool for speakers. I encourage you to make special effort to include emotional appeals in your persuasive messages.

That's all for today folks. Be well, speak well, and as always, thanks for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting work see Semiosphere Consulting.