I have been asked to give a few talks this year, and I'm out of practice. So I called my mom.
Whenever I need advice on concealed firearms, single-engine aircraft and public speaking, I call my mom. Mom is a voice instructor, firearms instructor, speech pathologist and student pilot. As might be expected from a woman who shoots wild boar for Thanksgiving dinner and watches What Not to Wear with her granddaughter, Mom gave me very practical advice for speaking in public.
“Breathe,” she said.
“Ah,” I answered, steepling my fingers in prayer. “It's so simple.”
But, no, there was more. Much more. My mother, Corinne Barringer, M.A., CCC-SLP, teaches actors, pilots, corporate executives, professors, lawyers and many others. So she and I put together the following guide to public speaking for designers or anyone who doesn't spend much time in front of an audience.
One week before your talk
Do a gravity exercise for breathing
Deep breathing exercises are a good place to start. Lie on your back on a hard surface, such as a carpeted floor. Do not lie on a bed, which is not firm enough. Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Inhale slowly to the count of three and exhale slowly to the count of five. While your count may vary, your inhalation should be shorter than your exhalation. The hand on your chest should move minimally, while your other hand should rise and fall with your abdomen as a result of air moving in and out of the thoracic cavity. Relax your abdominal muscles during inhalation and contract them during exhalation.
Articulation drill, or tongue twisters
Control, not speed, is the focus with tongue twisters. Pronounce the words clearly. Try saying “red leather, yellow leather,” which is a popular one among actors. Speak slowly and feel the pull of the muscles in the mouth and face. If you feel self-conscious, practice in private. You may also try saying “eleven benevolent elephants.” Slow down to enunciate clearly. It's funny when you bumble it up, and you will. When you get it right, speed up and have fun with it.
Record yourself speaking or reading aloud. It's good practice if you have a prepared speech or if any part of your talk is scripted. Listen to correct any pronunciation errors. Refer to an online pronunciation dictionary. Identify any bad speech habits, such as repeating “like,” “well,” “um” or “dude.” Remember that your recorded voice will sound strange to you. When speaking, you hear your voice resonate inside your head, and you also hear your voice bounce back into your ears. Recording yourself and listening to the recording can help you overcome nervousness and help you familiarize yourself with the sound of your voice.
Practice talking aloud
Don't perform. Don't mimic other voices. Leave those skills to actors. Practice speaking at least once a day. Practice in front of someone else. You will get used to speaking in front of an audience, and you can solicit feedback from a listener. Nervous people tend to speak faster. Remember to slow down. It takes time for the audience to hear your words travel through the room or auditorium, to interpret them, and to appreciate their meaning. Give the audience time, or listeners will become restless and ignore you. If you are impatient, you risk conveying the message that your words are not important, and your audience will come to share your impatience. Speak carefully and deliberately, and you will convey respect for yourself and your audience.
Prepare your props
Bring note cards. You can bring a copy of your entire speech, or you can bring note cards with reminders to jog your memory. You can write down quotes from others, so you don't misquote anyone, as well as references and other information you don't want to bother memorizing (you can even bring handouts). Make sure your note cards are legible at arm's length. You don't want to bring them up to your face to read. Having note cards should relax you, even if you never refer to them. Note cards and other written materials are also crucial as backups in case of technical glitches. You want to be prepared to go on with your talk even when the slide projector is forgotten, the laptop freezes, or the video monitor remains locked in the back room. Posters, whiteboards, handouts, books, and other hardcopy visual materials are always reliable.
Three days before your talk
Avoid dairy products such as milk, yogurt, ice cream, butter and cheese. Dairy products cause the body to produce extra phlegm and mucous, which interferes with your speech, gives you a wet, gurgly vocal quality and causes you to cough or clear your throat excessively.
Drink more water. Increased hydration will have positive systemic effects on your body, including your vocal cords. You want nice, plump vocal cords for the best sound. Coffee and carbonated beverages do not count. Drink eight glasses of water a day. A half-gallon to a gallon a day is better… really. The first sign of dehydration is fatigue, not thirst. Don't wait until you're thirsty. Remember, water works the same at any temperature, hot or cold. Filtered water is probably best. Avoid sugary vitamin drinks. Instead, add a little fruit juice to your regular water. It's a frugal way to change the flavor. Or add a bit of Vitalyte powder (used to be called Gookinaid) rather than Gatorade. It has less sugar, better taste, and more professionals use it.
Don't talk above loud noise. Don't strain to be heard above the din at bars, parties or sporting events. The combination of shouting over crowd noise, yelling at the game on TV, drinking alcohol and inhaling smoke fumes could put your voice out of commission for days.
No smoke, no sprays
Avoid inhaling smoke fumes, but also avoid being around any lawn sprays, insect repellents, hair sprays or other airborne chemicals.
The day of your talk
Wear comfortable clothing
Do not wear a new outfit, which can make you self-conscious. Do not wear anything constricting, itchy or complicated. You don't want to tug or adjust your clothes as you speak. Do not wear fabrics that rustle. Avoid jewelry that clicks, jingles or makes noises. Fussing with clothing or jewelry distracts the audience from listening to your words. Remember that a microphone amplifies even slight noise.
Take a water bottle
Bring water with you. Don't count on the venue providing it. Bring water even if your talk is short. Small sips will alleviate a dry throat and prevent a coughing spasm. Sipping water also allows you to take a break, compose yourself or think of a good answer to a challenging question.
Don't drink any alcohol until after your talk. Alcohol can alter judgment, slur speech and dry your mouth and throat. Have a congratulatory glass of wine or a beer after the event.
A calming exercise
To calm yourself before your talk, lift your shoulders up to your ears, then lower them down. You are giving your body physical cues to relax. Then stand erect, shoulders down and slightly back. You need to maintain proper posture in order to give your lungs room to expand and take in air. If you slouch or slump, you are preventing the lungs from expanding fully and getting good breath support for speech. Take a couple of good deep breaths, check your shoulders again. If you are nervous, your voice will tend to go up in pitch. This shoulder technique is a simple way to bring it back to normal.
During the talk
Nervous people tend to rock back and forth, play with their hands and touch their faces and hair. Fidgeting distracts the audience. Eyes follow movement. Instead, stand still and remain poised, even if you are slightly nervous. Hold something, such as your note cards or the sides of the podium, to keep your hands still. However, don't drape yourself over the podium or look down and talk into the podium. Keep your head up. If you relax and speak clearly, then your audience will relax and listen. Breathe, relax your shoulders and take a sip of water. Remember that you have prepared, and take your time.
Panels and groups
The dynamics of groups vary widely, but in general, do not try to emulate the ways other people are speaking and behaving. Be confident in your own preparation. Pause before responding to a question. Do not try to fill the silence with rambling. It's not a race, and it's not a competition. If others are trying to be funny, don't feel you have to be funny too. If others are responding with long-winded answers, don't feel you have to respond that way as well. Nervous people tend to launch into speeches with qualifiers and digressions, because they start speaking before they know what they want to say. Well-meaning panelists only want to contribute and give the audience their money's worth, so to speak. But they often end up saying nothing. So, instead, pause, think, respond, and then stop talking. This shows that you respect the audience and the other panelists.
After the talk
Your turn to listen
After the event, the speakers and the audience members often mingle over drinks and food. Don't try to fix a broken talk. Don't make excuses for yourself. The talk is over. This is the time for conversation, which requires a different mindset. Enjoy that the talk is over and that you got through it, and now change your focus to making conversation. The audience sat there and listened to you. Respect that. Don't wait for people to come to you. Go to them, introduce yourself, ask questions and listen.
Mail thank-you notes to those who coordinated the event, and email new acquaintances to solidify new contacts. Later, for yourself, review your experience. What preparations helped you the most? What did you do well? What would you like to improve? Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so review your experience with an eye toward making slight improvements for your next talk. You can't fix everything at once, and you can't become a great speaker after just one talk. Make small improvements, and plan to become a little better with each event.
About the Author: David Barringer is the author of There’s Nothing Funny About Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), as well as American Home Life and American Mutt Barks in the Yard. The recipient of the 2008 Winterhouse Writing Award for Design Writing & Criticism, Barringer is currently a visiting faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and teaches design at Winthrop University.