Ask Dr. V: Public Speaking Anxiety
Venus Nicolino, PhD of clinical psychology, answers your questions in this section. This week: Public Speaking Anxiety
I’m so nervous and anxious! I’ve been asked to give a speech at my brother’s wedding. I don’t know where to begin or end. PLEASE help! He asked me three weeks ago and I don’t think I’ve slept since. I want to do this … please tell me how? I only have a few weeks!
Ms. Shaking at the Knees
Dear Ms. Knees,
The fear of public speaking is called glossophobia (or, informally, “stage fright”). It is believed to be the single most common phobia — affecting as much as 75 percent of the population. Fear of oration is ranked even above that of death. As Jerry Seinfeld observes, “The average person would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” So, Ms. Knees you are not alone. Here are a few tips:
1. Why? The first question to consider is “Why?” Why have you been selected to address this wedding? Is it because you are an intimate friend or relative of the bride/groom? Yes, in your case, you are his sister, so go a step further; for example, is it because you are wise and can give sage advice on life? Is it because you are entertaining and an outgoing person? Perhaps, your authenticity and genuine disposition is a reflection of his feelings for his wife-to-be? Knowing why can give you inspiration about what to say in your speech.
2. Topics. Choose topics for your speech that everyone can relate to. Recanting humorous, (but not humiliating) events from the bride and groom’s past is a good idea. Be sensitive to your audience, particularly older, more traditional guests. Steer clear of anything that might be considered in bad taste. While researching topics for your speech, talk to close family and friends for ideas and anecdotes. Be diverse in your sources. The bride might not want to talk much about her life, but her parents or siblings might. The best way to get people to talk freely about a subject is at meal times or when they are comfortable and stress-free. Be gently persistent. Asking once sometimes does not always produce results.
3. Writing. Once you have gathered enough information begin writing your speech. List out all the elements you want included in the speech, such as the thanks and toast. Once you have the essential elements, work on the actual wording of the speech. The “meat” of the speech should not cover too many topics. Don’t forget to have an opening and a nice way to conclude.
4. Short and sweet. Keep your speech short and sweet. Two to five minutes is usually sufficient. If there are very few speakers and a smaller audience, a longer speech may be appropriate, but keep the content interesting and involved.
5. Try it out! Recite the speech aloud to yourself. The sentences should not sound too long and rambling, nor should they be abrupt. Omit or change words and phrases that sound awkward. Avoid using the same word or phrase over and over again. The speech should sound as if you were speaking naturally. Practicing in front of someone can be extremely beneficial in calming your anxieties.
6. Jokes? Jokes, Anecdotes, and quotations are nice additions to wedding speeches. The problem with a lot of the better jokes is that, chances are, many of the audience members have already heard them. If language is a barrier, keep the jokes simple and relevant. Avoid “you had to be there” and “inside” jokes.
7. Pace yourself. Speak gradually and watch your pace. Stand up straight and project your voice. Avoid rustling through papers and notes. Take a deep breath at the beginning so that you don’t run out of breath in the middle of a sentence. Try to make eye contact with various members of the audience as you speak.
8. Audience Attention. Hold the audience’s attention throughout the speech. Pause noticeably after a joke or at the end of an amusing anecdote. Introduce feeling in the way you speak and highlight certain words. Avoid distracting gestures or habits.
9. Confidence. Confidence is crucial in good speech delivery. Don’t be overwhelmed by the situation. Remember that it is a happy occasion. Everyone is here to enjoy themselves and look forward to your speech. Remember to smile!
10. Waiting to go on stage can be murder. Get some exercise. Take a walk to burn off your nervous energy, just make sure you get back in plenty of time to calmly take the stage. If you’re prone to stomach upset, eat a couple of hours before you go onstage. You don’t want low blood sugar which can make you feel light-headed but neither do you want undigested food rumbling around in your stomach threatening to come up!
Above all do whatever you can to stay calm. Take deep, steady breaths. If people make you nervous stand apart from others or use headphones to listen to music. Wear clothes appropriate to the occasion but that do not restrict your movements or cut off your breathing. Do not allow yourself to get overheated and run the risk of fainting. If your hands shake, rest them on the podium in front of you to hide the trembling and to have the feeling of holding on to something solid.
One tried and true formula is to imagine the audience in their underwear. For as ludicrous as this sounds, it does help to remind yourself that the people out there that form that big scary audience are just people. If it is part of your philosophy to do so, say a quiet prayer and turn your performance over to your deity.
If you have a few weeks before the wedding, take a class. Effective public speaking can be developed by joining a club such Rostrum, Toastmasters International, Association of Speakers Clubs (ASC) or International Training in Communication (ITC) in which members are assigned exercises to improve their speaking skills. Members learn by observation and practice, and hone their skills by listening to constructive suggestions followed by new public speaking exercises.
* The use of gestures
* Control of the voice (inflection)
* Vocabulary, register, word choice
* Speaking notes
* Using humor
*Developing a relationship with the audience
International Federation of Professional Speakers affiliates (often called National Speakers Association) offer a similar service for those whose occupation is a professional speaker.
Ms. Knees, you are not alone … teaching people public speaking has even turned into a paid profession! Commercial training services such as Speaking Circles International are also available. Good luck!
Note: All information in the Ask Dr. V column is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnosis and treatment, please feel free to call or email Dr. V, or consult your doctor.
Please feel free to email Dr. V a question for posting at DrVenus@TheSavvyGal.com; questions may be edited for grammar and length; emails are only read by Dr. V.