Thursday, July 16, 2009

your questions on flat, shaky speech starts

I'm planning to ask the audience what they want to learn about public speaking at the Washington Women in Public Relations workshop I'm leading later this month. But we started that conversation on Facebook, and two of the questions concerned getting started in a speech--not surprising, as this is the moment when you'll have the highest audience attention, and you'll sense the pressure. Here are two questions on successful starts:

  • "How to keep that voice from shaking initially?" asked Terri Ash. I always think it's important to plan your opening thoroughly--scripting it, even if the rest of your talk is extemporaneous, just to be sure you take advantage of the heightened attention you'll receive. But for a shaky voice, breathing's the cure you need. Take the time to do some deep breaths about 10 minutes before you speak, and before you ever get to the venue, practice the relaxation response so you can take control of your breathing. You're trying to counteract the normal fight-or-flight response that kicks in when you're in a threatening situation; knowing that and preparing for it will help bring that shaky voice under control.

  • "What about when your attempt at a joke/ice breaker doesn't get a response?" asked Gwen Haynes. She continued: "Complete silence, no laughs. Do you acknowledge it or just get back to the topic and keep rolling?" Or perhaps worse, your opener can become an unintentional joke, as happened here to Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. Again, here's where planning out that opening makes a lot of sense, including running that joke past a few trusted colleagues in advance. But if it falls flat--as audiences are unpredictable--you need to make a short acknowledgement and move right into your speech. Don't forget: Jokes are among the toughest aspects of a speech to pull off, and the start of your speech is when the stakes are highest. You may want to save the jokes for a later moment, and come up with a different opener.

Related posts: The joke teller's memory problem