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  spacer — taking the terror out of talk!  
     
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Numerous surveys taken over the years suggest that some people fear speaking in front of a group more than snakes, heights, disease and death. In fact, 85% of people surveyed said that they feel uncomfortable about speaking in public.

All public performers — actors, opera singers, comedians — feel nervous tension just before they go on. You never lose that sensation — the tightening in the stomach and the quickening of the breath and pulse. The secret is to face that fear — and turn it to your advantage. There's a fine line between anxiety and excitement. Practice and skill will develop in you the ability to control that fear and get on with the presentation.

The physical symptoms of speech anxiety include: sweaty palms, dry mouth, and increased heart rate or “butterflies”.

Some people though, see these as positive - some then feel ready to begin. However, for others it is a real “fear”. Speakers often “imagine the worst” and their anxiety increases.

Excessive anxiety is felt by people who view speeches as “performances”, in which they must satisfy an audience who will carefully evaluate gestures, language and everything else they do.

Try to view speeches as "communication" rather than 'performance'. Remember it takes time to develop these skills or any skills. It takes perseverance.

Your role, as a speaker, is to share ideas with an audience which is more interested in hearing what you have to say rather than in analysing or criticising how you say it. View your speech as an everyday conversation.

There are three phases of physiological arousal which go with making a speech. These are:
(1) the period just before the speech is to take place
(2) the “surge” as we start (known as the confrontation) and
(3) the “subsiding” phase, after the speech is over.

As a speaker, be aware that the “confrontation” stage is short-lived and to some extent everyone experiences this.

WAYS OF ENHANCING YOUR PERFORMANCE

There are two main components of any oral: the content and the presentation. Naturally these are interdependent: an excellent delivery can boost a mediocre script and conversely an excellent script can lose its impact if the delivery is weak.

Content Preparation

It may be obvious but it is worth repeating that a thorough knowledge of your topic is the most important component for success in this task. Audiences soon detect speakers who are unsure, who are tentative, who are under-prepared or who don't really know what they're talking about. You should plan and research carefully and don't stick to a narrow or rigid version of your topic, or a question that is just 'outside' your topic may confuse you. That being said, you can't be expected to be an 'expert' and your oral presentation should be focused and tightly planned.

Preparing for an Oral Presentation

Once you have gathered together your notes and completed your research, it is important to distil all that material into a manageable 'bundle' for your audience. In many respects this is the most difficult part of the process; it is tempting to continue collecting information, but the task requires that this material be synthesised and delivered to an audience orally.

• Make sure that your speech is right for your audience; if you know that several people in your class are intending to talk on similar topics then make sure your approach is slightly different, or get together with them to take on various aspects of the issue.

• Practise your speech ahead of time. Take time to pause in the right places to make eye contact and catch your breath. You may want to mark your speech where you want to pause. If the talk is difficult or doesn't seem to flow when you practise, rewrite that section.

• The best way to deal with nervousness is to practise. Practise your speech so much that you can do it without conscious strain or effort; so that it's a familiar task.

• Your audience is there to hear your talk. Concentrate on the ideas, not yourself; acting self-consciously only draws more attention to you and away from the ideas you want to communicate.

Using Visual Aids

• If you use PowerPoint slides or overheads, stick to no more than five major points per slide.
• If you are not going to use technology, it can still be a good idea to provide your audience with some kind of handout summarising your main points.
• Consider other visual aids; a visual aid is anything the audience can see that helps you get your message across.
• If you intend using any technology, even something as simple as an overhead projector, check carefully that it is working beforehand. Don't rely on others to know how to fix it for you.

Group Presentation

If you are working on a group presentation ensure that the work is evenly spread and each group member's role is clear. Remember that you will be assessed individually but the coherence and effectiveness of the group is also important.

Reading notes

Talk to the audience, not to your overhead or slide, or notes. Everyone (except the most experienced presenters) refers to notes but remember, if you are looking down more than looking at the audience, engagement with the audience is lost. Have your notes in an accessible form so that you can quickly find information by just glancing down. Practise to find out what you feel most comfortable with: extensive point form notes; notes on cards, PowerPoint, overheads, no script, etc.

Reading a full script

This is not recommended because you are simply “reading aloud” (which is not the purpose of the oral presentation) and it is easy to lapse into a monotonous and flat delivery. If you need a script, have it near you, but do not hold it; refer to it only when you need to be prompted or to refresh your memory. Have the script set out very clearly so that you can keep your place. (Some experienced speakers put just one point in large print on each page.) You are strongly advised to prepare a series of “cue cards” that cover the main points of your topic. You will receive very few marks if you are directly reading from sheets of paper or notes!

Learning your presentation by heart

This depends on your experience, but practising (preferably in front of a mirror) will help you enliven a learnt speech.

Audience response

It is important to constantly check how you are impacting on the audience — and this is where varied pace, changing emphasis, eye contact, some gestures if possible and good diction all come into play.

Diction

Diction is most important, easily undermined by nervousness and haste. Avoid swallowing important words. Emphasise key words. Do not run words together. Try practising with a friend and use a home video if you have one to help identify the quality of your diction.

Pace

Vary your pace. The same pace whether fast, slow or average is monotonous and tedious.

Guard against rushing. Even though this is very difficult if you are nervous, work out some ways to control the speed of your delivery. Pauses of only a few seconds can be vital; these also provide time for your audience to digest material.

Eye contact

Make eye contact with the audience. Connect with them. Make them pay attention to you. If you're nervous you may want to make eye contact with just a couple of people in the audience; imagine you're speaking just to them.

Body language

Try to be natural and animated; harder than it sounds sometimes. Use hand gestures or move around a little. But don't rock back and forth - that conveys nervousness.

If you're nervous while speaking, concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply. Nervous people have a tendency to take short shallows breaths.

Structure — use signposting

The order of you points is critical - listeners must get a clear sense of where your talk is going. Signposting is a structuring technique that does this using strategies such as firstly, secondly, thirdly and so on. As well as helping you to be purposeful, this cues the audience into the organisation and direction of your talk.

Conclusions

End on a strong note. Avoid letting your voice fade away as you finish.

REMEMBER:

• Be well-prepared — both for your audience and with your material.
• Practise! Practise! Practise!
• Communicate with your audience — maintain eye contact and speak with enthusiasm.
• Do not hold sheets of paper and most definitely do not read from sheets of paper or prpeared notes.

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Last up-dated 12 November, 2012
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