By Devan Moonsamy

A dynamic public speaker is someone who can deliver a talk or lead a discussion successfully according to the needs of the context and the audience. It doesn’t mean that you need to put on a show or pretend to be someone you are not. Fear of public speaking is the most common phobia that people have.

How do we overcome this fear? It was something I needed to do, and which many people have done already. You too can overcome your fear of speaking in front of groups of people. This phobia is not abnormal. Speaking in front of others is daunting because we feel they are judging us. But this can be used to our advantage. If we do well in our speech or discussion, we will make a major positive impression on the audience and promote us in our career.

To deliver a dynamic presentation, there are three broad categories of aspects to master.

The body: Focus on slowing your breathing and taking deeper, more full breaths. Breath management is key to helping you stay calm and speak well. Experts also say that we need to control nervousness, not eliminate it. Nervousness is an ally if we redirect it. It gives us an extra spurt of adrenaline that we need to give us the edge in public speaking. The secret is in learning how to control it, not trying to get rid of it because that is a losing game.

Use diaphragmatic breathing and avoid upper chest breathing. This helps amplify your voice. You don’t have to open your mouth too wide. Rather use a medium closed mouth which creates resonance and medium volume which is preferable. There is no need to shout or raise your voice too much; it puts people off.

If you are using a microphone, don’t speak too close to it. Hold it at a 45° angle at least 10cm from your mouth. Remember that people’s ears can be hurt if you speak too loud. If you speak too close to the microphone, it creates a ‘boom’ noise and the sound engineer will have to reduce the volume considerably or it will hurt the audiences’ ears. In such cases what you are saying will be garbled.

The mind: You must plan your speech thoroughly. Write it down in as much detail as you need it to be. Some actually do well with undetailed notes, others need more detailed notes, and that is fine. It may help to write out the overall structure and memorise that. Then write down a few key phrases which you really want to say in specific words in a specific way, and which you can even read out to the audience.

Practice and know your topic very well. Failure to practice will lead to major problems during delivery. Nancy Daniels, who writes a lot about public speaking, says that even if it means staying up all night, your preparation should be thorough. She says that ‘Your adrenaline will get you through it and you can crash later.’

I would advocate for a middle road. Practice as thoroughly as possible, even into the night, but you know your body and how much sleep you need. For some, being less prepared is not as much a problem as being exhausted.

Reading through your speech only is insufficient. Nancy Daniels says, ‘Your audience is there to hear you speak to them. If you plan to read it, why not copy it, pass it out, and then everyone can go home!’ You must practice several times over until you can move from one sentence or idea to the next without checking your notes each time.

The social: Nancy Daniels says that the secret is ‘the ability to treat your audience just as if you were having a conversation in your living room… we think we should be something or someone we’re not. I want you to be you. The best speakers are those who are themselves.’

This sounds great, but it’s very hard when you are nervous, under pressure to perform, or your thoughts are scattered. To connect with your audience in an interpersonal way, you first must master the two categories discussed above. Once you have control of your breath and body, and if you know what you are going to say in depth, you are then ready to engage with people in a way that ensures they get your message across successfully and in the way you intended to.

To master the social or interpersonal aspects of your speech, there are a few critical but very simple things to do. These are:

  • Make eye contact with your audience from time to time, as appropriate. Don’t speak only to certain people, but give general attention across the room, focussing on different groups or even single people for short periods.
  • Nancy Daniels says, ‘You will discover that you will feel more comfortable if you zoom in on your smilers.’ This is especially helpful if it’s a tough audience. In such cases look and speak to those people who are showing positive reactions. Other people might be tired, distracted or even not interested in what you are saying. You want to connect with everyone and give everyone some of your attention.
  • You will make mistakes, so just recollect your thoughts and keep going. If you are making a lot of mistakes, however, it is due to lack of preparation and practice.
  • Add some emotion or feeling. Change your voice from time to time to suit your topic. Don’t use a monotone voice or a repetitive tone. Also, use appropriate and varied facial expressions and body language. ‘Color is not only heard in the voice, but it is also seen in your facial expression as well as your body language,’ Nancy Daniels explains.
  • It is difficult to show appropriate emotions if you are unprepared and your nervous energy is uncontrolled. Confidence and the ability to show your personality and emotions will blossom like flowers if planted in a well-tended garden of preparation and practice. Nancy Daniels says, ‘Learning to control your nervousness means allowing yourself to be expressive.’
  • Have a test run in front of someone who can give you useful feedback. Ask them to offer advice on what would make the speech better. For example, maybe you haven’t explained a certain point as clearly as necessary. Practising with someone can help identify these problems.

If you are challenged, even intimidated, by a cold audience, continue trying to speak to them, not at them, and see if they don’t thaw a bit. Being well prepared helps tremendously in such cases because you can focus on your topic and making a good delivery. Even if the audience reactions are disappointing, they cannot fault your delivery. You will know exactly what to do, keeping your talk flowing from one point to another, and not getting stuck. This gives you a chance to create a good impression, even if the audience is frigid.