How to Give a Speech When You're Terrified of Giving a Speech
The following is an excerpt from Esquire editor and Entrepreneur columnist Ross McCammon's new book, Works Well With Others (Dutton, 2015), a humorous and informative guide to achieving success in the workplace.
Toasting is one thing. Speaking in front of people without a drink in your hand is entirely different.
As you advance in your career, opportunities to speak in public increase. You have to present something to the entire staff. You have to participate in a "panel discussion." You have to go give marginally useful advice to some college students.
The thing that happens to me is: I have a hard time swallowing. Amazing how many times a minute we swallow. We don't think about it. We just do it. When I have to give a speech, I become conscious of swallowing, and then I get anxiety about making it happen, and then I just...can't...make it happen. This is a problem. I have to stop, grimace, and try to force it. Then I become out of breath because, as I was trying to swallow, I stopped breathing. Now I'm out of breath after having done this weird mini convulsion, and this is just not working and I want to walk off the stage and out of the building and into my apartment and under the sheets.
It used to be an almost crippling anxiety. Once, before a panel discussion, I took a big swig of vodka straight from a bottle in my freezer at 8:15 in the morning, figuring that the buzz would relax my nerves in the short term but would wear off by the time I had to speak at nine. (Yes, I realize this is a warning sign.) I moved on to Xanax, which had the same effect, only it lasted throughout the speech.
The problem with medicating anxiety for public speaking is that I found it numbed the qualities that I needed to be an effective speaker: focus and enthusiasm.
What helped me the most, though, was to understand that A. public speaking can be accomplished by using certain rules, and B. really effective public speaking involves ignoring those rules and simply talking. Ultimately, a speech is a conversation with a whole lot of people who are refusing to participate in the chat.
You're never going to get to B without a ton of practice -- without simply doing a lot of speeches. So for now, here are the rules that have helped me the most:
Use a formula to write the speech.
There are so many to choose from.
You could do the ol' chestnut:
1. Tell them what you will tell them.
2. Tell them.
3. Tell them what you just told them.
You could do Dale Carnegie's so-called Magic Formula:
1. Tell a vivid personal story related to the topic.
2. Recommend one specific action for the audience to take.
3. Explain clearly and concisely how they will benefit from taking that action.
You could do the Churchill:
1. Pour gin into a mixing glass and, instead of adding vermouth, turn toward France and salute, then stir with ice and strain into a martini glass. Drink.
2. Start off strong and surprising -- with a quote or a story. Drink.
3. Stick to one message that can be expressed in a single sentence and make it the focus of your talk. Drink.
4. Use simple language. Drink.
5. Be descriptive. Drink.
6. End with a bang. Drink.
You could do the TED Talk:
1. Open with a personal story that explains why this topic is important to you.
2. Tell another personal story.
3. And another.
4. Reach peak self satisfaction that you're killing this TED talk.
5. Draw a surprising conclusion from the stories that can be expressed in a single sentence that people will want to immediately share on social media.
The formulas are different, but the common thread is: simplicity, poignancy, repetition.
Speak under your allotted time. No one has ever walked away from a speech and said, "I wish that had been about two minutes longer."
Throughout the speech, look at five people, one in each corner and one in the middle. No, really, look at them. Talk to them. Imagine that you are answering a question that all five of them asked. Address them. Occasionally say "you." ''I'm happy to be here" is a much less engaging message than ''I'm happy to be here talking with you."
Open your mouth wider than normal. Like the opera singers do.
Speak louder. Louder.
Know that everyone is on your side. They want this to be interesting as much as you do. They want you to succeed.
OK, that's way too loud.