Friday, August 13, 2010

Speaking Out Loud

Public Speaking, 2010

Lately I’ve been recalling some of the presentations I’ve given in my time. At one time I spoke regularly before all kinds of groups in all kinds of settings. Large groups, small groups, friendly groups and hostile groups, I had reasons to be before them.

My high school required every senior to make a 20-minute presentation to the entire upper school. Dates and speech counselors were assigned at the beginning of the year. This was long before PowerPoint or any other A-V crutches. It was just you, a no-nonsense lectern and an audience of school administrators, teachers and several hundred fellow students.

I don’t remember much about my Senior Speech other than that I spoke about A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School. The counselor assigned to me hadn’t been much help. I suspect I gripped the lectern as if my life depended on it and rocked back and forth like a tree in a storm. But I got through the speech without embarrassing myself. The headmistress of the girls’ division of the school congratulated me on choosing a subject related to education. The head of the boy’s division gave me a firm handshake.

I’ve since come to the conclusion that everyone should take a speech class. During my freshman year in college the Introduction to Speech class was one of the most popular electives. I didn’t take it, though, and continued to labor through various presentations with little more confidence than what I’d gained from my Senior Speech diatribe on experimental education at the Summerhill school.

My first “real job” after college required a lot of presentations. To prepare, I signed up for a three-day course in public speaking given by a local university. You started by giving a brief presentation in front of the class and a video camera. Then you looked at the videotape, analyzed your performance and had two days of lessons before repeating the process and comparing the two presentations. We didn’t learn any of those silly techniques you hear about, like imagining that the members of the audience are all naked. We learned how to have the confidence of your material and a handful of basic techniques for managing your body in front of an audience.

My next boss raised the stakes. Roger was famous for walking into my office, without notice and with some important guest in tow, and asking me to speak to the guest, who could as easily be a visiting newspaper publisher or the president of Sears Roebuck, for a few minutes about some bit of esoteric knowledge that might or might not have anything to do with the business we were in. “Tell us, Chris, about women’s specialty retailers in Richmond.” Or “Tell us about the market for washing machines in Hillsboro County, Florida.”

In the years since, I’ve spoken at large conferences, corporate and nonprofit gatherings, and such. These days, though, most of my presentations are to smaller groups of clients.

It’s my daughter who’s invited to speak before large audiences. When she was in college I encouraged her to take a speech class. It’s said that the fear of speaking in public is one of Americans’ greatest phobias. I didn’t want her to be hindered by that. She ignored this sage advice and, like her father, had to learn the real nuts and bolts of public speaking on her own later on.

Last week she was the keynote speaker at an international gathering of industrial designers. This was not the only large group she’s ever spoken before. But she’d waited until the last minute to prepare her presentation and therefore lacked the confidence she needed to avoid walking out onto the stage without all of her limbs shaking.

In the end, she did a wonderful job. She gained her confidence quickly. The crowd liked her. The presentation was well reviewed by some people from Fast Company magazine.

If you’re young, take a speech class. Even if you’re not young, take a speech class. You’ll be glad you did.


  1. Oh this is all so true. I think it terrorizes everyone, even some actors, i have heard, when freed from being in a Role, but have to just be themselves.
    I think the best cure is just by doing, doing. The more you do it, the less fearful it is. Confidence in content, yes, and in yourself, mostly.
    My HighSchool experience.. I was in lots of groups, clubs. "Leader" type in some situations... as editor of the yearbook, I was faced with leading an assembly at the end of my Sr year, to present the yearbook to the entire student body. I sweated for months. I stuttered then, a bit ( still do occasionally on a word or 2) so was wracked with fear...
    and the kids, the audience, were restless and rowdy and that really really made me mad! which helped! I was so proud of what we had done with this book, that I just kind of took over, and MADE them listen. Never stuttered once.

  2. It really is true--"they say" that people fear public speaking more than they fear death. I think my first REAL speaking in front of groups was when I taught in a college in VA--I was a nervous wreck, and then realized pretty quickly that they were even more nervous than I was and I should get over myself and get on with the material at hand.

    Now, I speak in front of groups all the time and I do ok, but I do think that it's really good advice to tell people to take a class.

    I saw Carol G's photo of Grace at the BlogHer event--she looked great! I'd hazard a guess that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

  3. I dreaded any form of public speaking when I was younger but it got easier with practice and age. I think this was mostly due to my US Air Force NCO Academy training where the instructor instilled the importance of either knowing your subject forward and backwards or keeping your mouth shut.

  4. Speaking out loud catch my interest!
    This is true!
    I haven't any problem to speak and I love to catch the attention about my words.
    I read a lot and I love learning new words.
    I also love to listen people that have something interesting to say.
    Unfortunately speaking out loud lately it's a problem to me 'cause I'm becoming deaf and this is a great handicap ...

    (I'm waiting for a surgery to got a bionic ear the next month!)