The art of public speaking


Bronwyn McArthur | Representative under Supervision | Natmed Medical Defence | mail me |

Few people find it easy to get up and give a speech in front of their professional peers, but a degree of public speaking is required in most professional spheres.

I am naturally an introverted person who is often tasked with having to give accredited professional development talks to healthcare practitioners all over South Africa.

Challenged with anxiety, this is not an easy task for me. But I often receive messages from people telling me that I make public speaking look so easy. I like to think of myself as a duck, calm on the surface, but treading water frantically underneath.

To ease the pain, I did a bit of research and looked up various public speaking tips, which didn’t help too much. I also received training on public speaking and one of the pieces of advice I received was to look at myself in the mirror and record myself. If you have ever had to watch yourself on video, you’ll know how tremendously awful it is. Consider my anxiety levels peaked.

None of the advice I found online really resonated with me. What I wanted to know is, what do all the speakers who appear confident do differently? Do they secretly suffer from the same, almost crippling, anxiety that I do?

I thought back to a mentor I had previously and thought, what would his advice be? He used to tell me to ‘get comfortable with being uncomfortable’; I remember our many conversations about growth and expanding one’s comfort zone. This required much self-reflection and, in that, I uncovered what I was truly afraid of. This is what I learnt:

It’s okay not to know everything

One of the things that has caused the most anxiety and fear in me, is being asked a question that I don’t know the answer to.

If I’m not 100% prepared on a topic or if I don’t know everything there is to know about it, I have sleepless nights. But recently I realised that I can’t possibly know everything on every topic. As silly as it may seem, I should refrain from being my own harshest critic and it’s okay not to know. So instead of going through my talk with fear in the back of my mind, I now address this fear head on at the beginning of my talk. I tell my audience I will do the best I can to answer all their questions and, if I don’t know the answer, I will take down their details, ask an expert, and get back to them.

What I’ve realised is that no one expects you to know everything and that no one expects you to be perfect. Taking this approach tends to be well received and appreciated by the audience; and often results in more business opportunities.

My voice is not bold or loud enough

Those who know me, know I have a rather soft voice. Even when I think I’m speaking loudly or shouting, I am not. Contrary to the speakers I’ve seen up there on the podium, I’m not loud and my voice does not carry.

My anxiety surrounding this stems from me thinking I should be something that I truly am not. But: my voice is clear, calm and articulate. As long as I ensure that the venue has a microphone, there is truly nothing to worry about.

Be sure to learn from others

In attending conferences and events, I get to hear many different types of speakers. I take notes on what they do well and what they could improve on, and then apply these aspects to my own talks.

What I’ve learnt is that the best speakers do not just read off of their PowerPoint presentations, but instead use their presentations as ‘cue cards’. They proceed to speak to the audience in a conversational manner and not a rehearsed, monotonous tone. This approach may differently for everyone, but for me it translates into not rehearsing beforehand.

As long as I’m confident that I have done my research, know my material and have my presentation to prompt me, I can speak confidently and freely on a topic. This helps to keep the presentations adaptable and natural. Some people may, instead, need to rehearse at least 10 times – and that’s okay too. Find what works best for you and apply this to your public speaking.

Break the ice

Have you ever attended a talk in which the speaker asks you to jump up and down because they’ve been sitting too long? To turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself? Or, even worse, to turn to one side, put your hand on the shoulders of the person in front of you and massage them? Absolutely mortifying.

Did I mention I am naturally introverted? What I like to do, instead, is to conduct a ‘pop quiz’ at the end of my presentation and in it to ask the audience a question on something I have spoken about. This gives the extroverts a chance to shout the answer out, leaving the introverts at peace. Lovely.

Practice makes perfect

At the end of the day, the age-old teaching stands the test of time. Nothing compares to doing something over and over again to truly master your craft.

While I am by no means yet a master at speaking publicly, I am certainly better than when I started. I no longer have sleepless nights or crippling anxiety before an event where I must speak. I do still, however, get a little nervous before a talk but I always tell myself that if I’m not a little nervous, I don’t truly care.




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