So what is it that scares you most about giving a speech?
Is it the risk that your jokes might fall horribly flat?
Is it the fear that you might freeze and have nothing to say?
Is it the possibility that your audience will regard you as the most boring individual they have ever encountered?
All are understandable fears. However, in reality such eventualities rarely occur. In fact, the single factor most likely to damage your speech or presentation is nervous anxiety itself.
Many people find the prospect of giving a speech intimidating. For some, this amounts to more than just pre-performance butterflies. As the big day looms, prospective speakers often feel a growing sense of dread and self-doubt. For some people this can even have physical side effects: insomnia, cold sweats, vomiting and other even more unpleasant digestive tract issues! These are symptoms of stress and they can be utterly debilitating. No speech is worth making yourself ill for. And the truth is, your concerns are probably exaggerated.
Professional speech writer Lawrence Bernstein has both written and delivered speeches many times over the course of his career, and has put together a few simple rules to follow which should help you relax before giving a speech.
9 Great Ways to Relax Before Giving a Speech
1. Understand What’s Expected of You…
Exactly what is the purpose of your speech? What impact do you wish to have? Think carefully about this. You need to have a clear message. Your speech needs to deliver, in the words of a famous wood stain advertisement “exactly what it says on the tin”. If you have a secure understanding of the requirements of a particular speech, it will reduce your stress levels beforehand. Your speech can be structured specifically to meet those requirements. If you are uncertain, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions of the host or organizer before the big day. Don’t be embarrassed. They will want your speech to be successful too.
2. Know Your Audience…
Do you know who you will be addressing? Reflect on the listener. Show them respect in the way that you construct your speech. No two audiences are alike and you should above all make the effort to be relevant to the people you are addressing. Again, if you have a secure understanding of your audience, you will know which buttons to press in your speech. This should remove another stressful “unknown”.
This is not as exciting as it sounds. It refers neither to a nerve steadying pre-speech “snog” nor the infamous heavy rock band. KISS means “Keep It Simple Stupid”. Simplicity is vital in producing an effective speech. Make sure it is logically structured with clear language and straightforward sentences. Ensure that your message is absolutely obvious. This will make your speech easier for you to practice and deliver. But beware…keeping it simple is harder than you might think!
4. Edit and “Smooth” Your Speech
Once you have written your first draft, go over it carefully. Remove difficult phrases. Shorten over-long sentences. Review and refine your language. Keep asking yourself “is this speech the best it can possibly be?” Not only will the iterative process improve the quality of your content, but it will also familiarize you with the rhythms of the speech and make it easier to deliver. By the way, how will you organize your notes? Will you transfer the whole speech on to hand held cards? Will you be speaking off prompts from a presentation? If you are reading your speech from A4 paper, will you have a lectern or table on which to place it? Go with whatever system you feel most comfortable with. There are no set rules.
My old headmaster used to say “there is no examination that you can’t prepare for”. Though it pains me to say so, he was right! Rehearse thoroughly. If possible, do so in front of a mirror. Consider recording your performance on a tablet computer. Listen to your delivery carefully and work on improvements. (For example, I bet you’re speaking too fast!). You could also practice in front of a trusted colleague or friend. Note their reactions to different parts of your speech: learn when to pause and make eye contact; think about what works and what doesn’t.
6. Visualize Your Performance
Ever seen an Olympic Long Jumper or Triple Jumper on the runway? Watch them closely. They often seem to be talking to themselves, twitching their muscles, rocking on their heels, moving their arms. They are visualizing a successful jump, preconditioning their mind and body for what is required. It is a powerful technique used by many top athletes and professionals. Imagine delivering a successful speech: how you will feel when you begin to talk, where you will be standing, how you will be using your notes, how you feel if you get the desired audience reaction. It is a very useful preparatory technique that should mitigate your nerves and channel positive energy. Visualization and rehearsal used in combination will improve your confidence and polish your performance.
7. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
It is important that you are well rested before giving a speech. Don’t sit in bed reading and re-reading your notes until the small hours. This is unhelpful. Your mind will be flying and you will find it hard to settle down. Don’t drink alcohol to help you sleep (it won’t) and try not to deviate from your normal routines. If you must read something to help you get to sleep, read a novel. If reading proves difficult, watch a funny video instead: a colleague of mine used to watch DVDs of Father Ted on the night before every big presentation! Sleeping pills or other sleep inducers should be avoided too: they might affect your delivery the following day.
8. On the Day
Get up early! Make sure you have some breakfast even if you don’t feel very hungry. Don’t drink too much tea or coffee: caffeine could make you very edgy. Dress in an outfit that you feel confident and comfortable in. Don’t wear anything risky (or risqué for that matter) and watch out for clothes that might somehow hinder your delivery: new shoes that squeak or pinch, a shirt with an overly tight collar, heels that might break, a tie with yesterday’s gravy spattered on it!
Nothing will stress you out more than arriving late. Check out your transport arrangements carefully. Leave yourself plenty of time in case of traffic jams or problems on the railways. Check the internet for any travel problems before you leave. Do you have a contact number for the venue in case you get lost or are delayed? Do you have your mobile?!
Arrive early at the venue and if possible get access to room in which you will be speaking. Orientate yourself. Where will you be speaking from? How far are you from the audience? Is there a microphone? Where will you be sitting? Visualize your successful performance again. If you have the time, do a final speech rehearsal in the room before anyone arrives.
9. Above All Stay Calm
If nerves are getting to you, find a quiet space somewhere, close your eyes and try to focus only on your breathing. It is amazing how breathing exercises can settle nerves. Just don’t fall asleep!
Finally, when you stand up to start your speech, don’t rush. Take a moment. Perhaps pour yourself a glass of water. Then consult your notes and address your audience in a clear, confident and measured voice.
Remember and follow the above-mentioned tips to relax before giving a speech … and you’ll be fine!