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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
“Breathe,” she said.
“Ah,” I answered, steepling my fingers in prayer. “It's so
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Avoid inhaling smoke fumes, but also avoid being around any lawn
sprays, insect repellents, hair sprays or other airborne
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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