Speaking about it in public
How to survive the mic (and leave a powerful impression)
Watching all these election integrity hearings, I remember what it felt like to be terrified of speaking or performing in front of people – a phobia I would have to conquer if I wanted to win Miss America or excel as an investigative journalist and news anchor.
Speaking in public ranks among the top 10 phobias that terrify Americans, and I was no exception. Believe it or not, I’m naturally a painfully shy introvert – something you would never know if you saw me emcee or perform for an audience. It took a lot of work to get to where I am today.
My moment of truth
My epiphany came one night as I waited backstage for my turn to perform at Miss Oklahoma. As always, I stood, shivering and sweating off my perfectly painted Tami Head, behind the curtain – eyes closed and praying, trying not to be intimidated by the woman ahead of me.
That’s when it hit me: How was anyone going to know how hard I’d worked or how talented I was if I allowed myself to be paralyzed with fear? Were the judges just supposed to take my word for it?
Slowly, the numbered rosette badge on my hip went from bouncing with the intensity of my trembling terror, to stone still calm. For the first time in my life, I was in control of my terror, and from that moment on, I won talent in every pageant I entered, including Miss America.
I didn’t win Miss America, but I did go on to a career in journalism, where once again I had to overcome my terror so I could deliver live shots. Along the way, I developed several tips and tricks that served me well as I anchored news, spoke, emceed and sang from Hawaii to New York.
How to tackle your terror
If the thought of speaking in front of others terrifies you, feel free to try some tricks from one who overcame paralyzing fear, to sing and speak across the country:
- Anticipate cotton mouth. The clicks and pops of a thick, dry tongue slogging around a parched mouth is highly distracting, and once you get behind the microphone, it’s too late to do anything about it. I used to suck on licorice pastilles, but these days you can find mouth hydration lozenges (links in the comments). If possible, keep water within reach (remember Marco Rubio?). Be aware, certain medications, such as benzos and opioids, exacerbate cotton mouth and slow and “thicken” the tongue (at least that’s how it feels and sounds).
- Um um um um… Enough said. Pregnant pauses are preferable to crutch words if you’re lost. There’s nothing wrong with pausing to collect your thoughts if “um”, “you know,” “so…”, or other crutches take over.
- Write bullet points – not a speech – double spaced in large, capitalized font. Underline and highlight words and terms for emphasis or to find your way back to natural breaks. Bear in mind, you speak totally differently than you write, so write in speak-eze, not in eloquent writing style. Bullet points help you stick to your agenda without sounding like you’re reading.
- Practice out loud and record it. You have no better critic than you. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about your presentation if you record and watch it. Practice also makes you aware of “um um um” and other crutches and idiosyncracies. (For example, I never realized I barely move my mouth when I speak, so I have to lift my facial muscles and over animate to appear normal.) Watching recordings of yourself also helps you stay within time limits.
- Be aware of cadences. This is a huge pet peeves for me. Many people speak in melodies for comfort. It’s another crutch that betrays inexperienced and lack of confidence. Listen to inexperienced news anchors and reporters. They almost sing their stories, using melodies that end with almost exactly the same tune, on exactly the same note, for every sentence. Be conscious of ending your sentences on “up” notes, as if you’re asking a question – as if you’re trying to gain approval for what you’re saying. Singing a speech becomes annoying and distracting. Don’t sing unless you’re hired to sing. Speak the way you would tell your story to a friend.
- Don’t eat immediately before you speak. We’ve all seen the speakers who hold back belches while they’re trying to speak. “Excuse me,” is polite and appropriate, but it’s also distracting.
- Humor helps break the ice, but not all engagements are amenable to humor. Know your audience. Scripted humor rarely plays as well in reality as it does in your head.
- Find your power. Put your hand on your sternum right now and hum. Feel the vibration? Focus your voice there to avoid whining when you get excited. The more nervous you feel, the higher your voice rises into your head and the less authority you exude (especially women). Consciously focus on lowering your heart rate and keeping your voice resonating from your chest. Never let it climb to your throat or head. I typically hum a low tone and begin speaking or singing from there, so I know my voice is properly placed from the start.
- Come correct. If you don’t know with 100 percent certainty that what you are saying is true, don’t say it. These days, everything is recorded, and the last thing you want is to be caught in lies or ignorance. Do your own research. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t trust the findings or opinions of others and don’t spread fake news, no matter how popular it might temporarily make you feel. If you’re quoting someone else or citing their work, attribute your comments accordingly.
- Dress for success – but not too much. This is especially for women. Your wardrobe can make as much of a statement as your mouth, so consider carefully your attire for your speaking engagement. I always think of wardrobe in terms of whether someone is more likely to wish I had worn it, or whether I hadn’t worn it. For instance, no one is going to look at my ears and wish I was wearing a big ol’ gawdy pair of earrings, but they might look at big ol’ gawdy ear bobs and wish I’d have left them at home. Same goes for colors and styles. I’ll rarely be sorry if I underdo it, but I’m often sorry when I overdo it. If you’re worried it’s too short – it is. If you’re worried you’re showing too much – you are. If you’re worried it’s too tight – it is. Trust your gut and don’t take chances.
- Ready, set, kick butt! Just before you take the stage (or the podium, or the mic, or the courtroom), suck on a hydrating lozenge. Take a swig of water and hold it in your mouth. Take several slow, deep breaths, exhaling beyond whatever you inhaled. Imagine your heart rate slowing and within your control. Relax all your muscles. Hum your voice into your chest.
I’m excited to hear how these tips work for you.
If you’d like help preparing for a big event, give me a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.