I'm so excited about the wedding, but I really hate public speaking.
Don’t get me wrong—I cannot wait for my sister’s wedding in August. Truly, I’m ecstatic. But a small part of me is also distressed about the whole shabang. Why? Because as her maid of honor, I have to give a speech. And because I struggle with public speaking. A lot.
My aversion to being at the center of attention is nothing new. Every teacher I ever had encouraged me to speak up more in class. Now, as an adult (Is 23 an adult? Asking for a friend...), I keep quiet during meetings at work. It’s not because it’s easier to sit back and let others do the talking. Rather, I find it tough to chime in when I know so many eyes and ears will be on me.
Of course, sometimes I have no choice. When I do have to address a group, it ain’t pretty. My voice catches on what feels like every other sentence and I get a bit breathless. Basically, I sound like I’m crying every time I give a presentation. Cute!
While it’s highly possible there will be tears during my wedding toast, I’d prefer them to happen because I’m feeling warm and fuzzy—not panicky. That’s why I called on Allison Shapira, public speaking expert and the CEO and founder of the training firm Global Public Speaking, to help me figure out how to do this thing.
My first question for Shapira: Why are some people so crippled by fear when it comes to addressing a crowd while others happily hop on stage? “There are certain people who don’t like being the center of attention and if you don’t like being the center of attention, then you probably don’t like public speaking,” says Shapira.
Virtually everyone gets nervous before giving a speech, says Shapira, and that’s actually a good thing. “A little bit of nervousness is normal and important because it helps you focus and it reminds you to spend time preparing. If you weren’t nervous at all, you might not be taking the speech seriously.”
Also encouraging is the fact that Shapira calls public speaking a skill, not a talent. In other words, people get better at it with practice. Phew. Until I get there, I’ll be leaning on these tips from Shapira on how to nail it when you need to address a crowd. Wish me luck!
RELATED: 7 Signs of a Nervous Breakdown
Reframe your purpose
Shapira makes the point that the speech is about the message—not me, the messenger. “If you think the purpose of the speech is you getting up, being the center of attention, and showing people how great you are, you may feel uncomfortable,” explains Shapira. “When you reframe it as your message being at the center of attention, you connect with the purpose of your speech and why it’s important to you and your audience. Then you are getting on stage in the service of your message, not to show off.”
Pause and breathe
What about when the DJ invites me to the dance floor to make my toast and I’m, well, freaking out? Pause and breathe, Shapira tells me. “When we get nervous, the fight or flight response kicks in. Through breathing and relaxation, you can literally override that response and calm your nerves.” Breathing between sentences once you start your speech is a good de-stressor too.
Prepare the right way
When it comes to writing and practicing my speech, Shapira tells me to go for quality over quantity. “It’s not about the length of time you spend practicing,” she says. “It’s about the quality of the practice." Before writing your speech, ask yourself three questions: Who is my audience? What is my goal? Why do I care about this subject?
“Once you’ve answered those three questions, then you can write a speech that’s directly relevant to your audience and your purpose,” Shapira tells me. The final step is practicing the speech aloud and in front of another person. It's a better way to do a dry run than reading it off a screen in your head, because you'll get a feel for the rhythm of your words and have the chance to delete anything that falls flat.