Author Kimberly Parker got coverage in the Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-
Stress of public speaking can cause panic, forgotten lines; how to get a speech or toast back on track
Along with gifts, feasts and festivities at the holidays comes a more challenging tradition: invitations to give speeches or toasts.
The biggest worry, for most people, is committing an embarrassing faux pas, such as forgetting what they want to say, telling jokes that fall flat or succumbing to a stress-induced panic attack.
Kimberly K. Parker spent days practicing the inspirational speech she planned to give one evening last month before 120 attendees at a women’s conference. But she was tired when she stepped on stage after a day on her job as a teacher, and she “drew a complete blank” when she tried to begin, says Ms. Parker, a Clinton, Md., author of five parenting and inspirational books.
She admitted her faux pas; the audience was empathetic. Shaking off her embarrassment, she focused on the warm, smiling face of one listener, picked up her notes and went on, drawing applause.
Many people—more than 1 in 4, according to a survey of 1,541 adults by Chapman University, Orange, Calif.—regard public speaking as a fearsome ordeal. Stress and anxiety can hijack the brain, sapping working-memory capacity and reducing fluid intelligence—the ability to reason quickly and solve problems, according to research led by Sian Beilock, an author and a professor in the psychology department at the University of Chicago.
Jenna Isabel Rose was so nervous before a speech she was giving on workplace stress that she forgot to set the parking brake on her car. When an announcement about a car rolling downhill in the parking lot was broadcast in the room, she interrupted her speech, ran outside, jumped in her car, re-parked it and set the brake, says Ms. Rose, an author and maker of custom artwork in Colorado Springs, Colo. She apologized and resumed her presentation, joking, “There’s a great example of stress in the workplace.”
Fear of speaking can become all-consuming unless speakers shift their mental focus away from themselves and onto what listeners need and want to hear, says Gary Genard, president of a Belmont, Mass., speech-coaching and training firm.
Lisa Taub froze when her boss asked her to give an impromptu toast to a departing colleague several years ago. Her stomach knotted, and, she says, “my mind was racing, wondering, ‘What can I say about her?’ ” She deflected the spotlight by inviting the 15 other attendees to turn toward the guest of honor and raise their glasses, says Ms. Taub, a Brooklyn, N.Y., executive assistant at a financial-services firm. That bought her a moment to take a few deep breaths and recall some memories of her co-worker, so she could speak.
It’s wise to plan ahead when you think you might be asked to speak. Jim Decker was so fearful when asked to speak at his grandfather’s funeral years ago that he refused, and he later felt sad about missing the opportunity, says Mr. Decker, owner of See Merchandising, a New York provider of merchandise for shows and events.
He got coaching and practice by joining Toastmasters International, a nonprofit group that helps members with speaking and leadership skills. He also began talking with relatives and gathering family stories. When his grandmother died recently, Mr. Decker delivered a four-minute remembrance.
Many people think memorizing their speeches will ensure success, but “it’s a terrible idea,” says Dr. Genard, author of “Fearless Speaking.” Reciting a speech from memory gives it a canned quality and distances a speaker from listeners. Also, a speaker who forgets one section might lose track of what follows, “and suddenly you’re at sea,” he says. A better approach is to plan a beginning and ending, then hold in mind the main points to make in between, says Gary Schmidt, Oregon City, Ore., past president and spokesman for Toastmasters International.
Opening with a joke is hazardous. A canned joke that has nothing to do with your speech or the event makes it hard to transition from the punchline to your topic, Dr. Genard says. It’s worse if the audience takes offense or doesn’t get it. “If you’re not a particularly funny person, 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t go over well,” says Vicki Donlan, a Hingham, Mass., business coach and author.
One’s own gaffes are a better route to humor. Ms. Donlan noticed as she took the stage for a speech to several hundred female entrepreneurs that she was wearing one black shoe and one blue shoe. She took them off, put them on the podium and said, “Every one of us is working hard to balance it all. Sometimes we get it right, but we still don’t manage to put on a matching pair of shoes,” Ms. Donlan says.
To ward off stage fright, arrive early, allowing one or two hours to detect and fix problems with audio or video gear or lost notes. Take a minute before speaking to check your appearance in a mirror and make sure your clothing is zipped and clean. Dr. Genard once spoke to a college class with a piece of paper towel stuck to his forehead, he says. He had been mopping his brow earlier and didn’t realize part of the towel had stuck.
Take a quiet moment to think about your stress in a positive way. People who say, “I am excited” before making a two-minute speech are more likely to be rated by listeners as persuasive, confident and competent, compared to people who say, “I am calm,” says a 2014 Harvard Business School study of 140 people.
Keep focusing on the audience. Lois Creamer of St. Louis, a consultant to professional speakers, asks organizers in advance about listeners’ needs, interests and sensitivities. Before speaking, she spends a moment thinking, “Let this be the information that these people need.”