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Is public speaking your worst nightmare? Part I

By Amy Bennett | March 5, 2018

Is public speaking your worst nightmare? Part 1

There’s nothing worse. You’re stuck listening to a horribly boring presentation where the minutes seem to drag into hours. Your eyes start closing, your head starts bobbing, you fidget in your seat hoping to stay awake. At the front of the room, stands the unfortunate sole who is either overcome with nerves or so painfully ill-prepared that you’re embarrassed for him. He rushes through his points, fumbles with the visual aids, and begins to ramble, completely unaware that, although physically you’re in your seat, on the inside you just want to bolt from the building and find the nearest bar.

Or perhaps, in addition to wanting to bolt from the room, you’re just glad it’s not you! Is public speaking your worst nightmare? Do you get sweaty palms just thinking about doing a presentation? Have you ever called in sick to work to avoid talking in front of your peers? If so, you’re not alone! I’ve seen surveys of people’s fears and phobias, and towards the top, fear of public speaking is usually right up there along with fear of heights, spiders, and clowns.

As advisors, we see this fear on a regular basis. Talking to degree-seeking adults, we inevitably hear from some students who want to push off the public speaking course until they have no other options. Unfortunately, practice does make perfect. The more you do anything, the better you’ll get at it, right? 

So, knowing that, how do you make public speaking bearable and maybe even enjoyable? I’ll give you advice I learned based on my own personal experiences and from also sitting in on Mike Henn’s public speaking class in three blogs that will be posted weekly. In Part I, I’ll primarily focus on the subject of your speech. Part II will focus more on successful speech delivery and Part III will give some helpful hints on overcoming your fear of public speaking. Here we go!

Choose your topic wisely.

Often times, coming up with the topic of a speech is just as difficult as delivering the speech. 

  • Ideally, you should speak about a personal experience or something that interests you. If you’re enrolled in COM 101 and your first speech is an informative 3-minute talk, please do not give your speech on Paris if you’ve never traveled abroad! It would be much more interesting to hear first-hand accounts of your family’s Disney adventure than telling your audience about Paris when you’ve never seen the Eifel Tower up close and personal. 
  • Textbooks will tell you to think about your audience, your purpose and the occasion, but what does that mean? Ask yourself the following questions: Who are you talking to and why? Will your audience be interested in the information you are sharing? What knowledge do they already have on the subject? Is your purpose to entertain, persuade, or inform your audience? (See Mike, I was paying attention!) The topic should also be appropriate for the occasion and for the audience.

Narrow down your topic.

Instead of telling your audience about your entire vacation, focus on one part of your week-long trip to Disney – maybe why you preferred Epcot to the other Disney parks. It’s much better to delve deeply into a specific topic rather than just skimming the surface on a very broad topic. As you’re choosing and narrowing down your topic, you may want to consider telling a story that is personal and relatable to the audience as well. 

Research may be necessary.

If you’re asked to speak about an unfamiliar subject, you may really want to decline the invitation, but sometimes that just not an option! Your other choice is to research the topic until you know it like the back of your hand. Because your audience will assume that you are an expert in the field you are presenting on, you need to be prepared – especially if you’re going to allow time at the end for questions.

As you’re choosing your topic and narrowing it down, you’ll also want to think about the length of your presentation. Believe me, no one will fault you for using less than your allotted time! However, if you go over that time, the audience will lose interest, and your host may be unhappy. While a tad sexist, the great orator Winston Churchill once said, “A good speech should be like a woman's skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” 

Continue to part 2: the delivery.

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