What makes someone an effective communicator and public speaker? Why are most people afraid of public speaking? What bad habits prevent us from being heard, and how can we speak in a way that best serves our message? What steps can we take, in our everyday lives, to become better public speakers? Public speaking is crucial to leadership, and we will explore all of these questions in this training session.
Why is public speaking important to you? Take turns sharing your thoughts with the group.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SPEAKING WELL
Public speaking is not just about speaking in front of large groups of people. It is about effective and clear communication. If you can speak well, this will serve you not only when talking to an audience, but in everyday life. Solving problems with a boss, coworker, employee, friend, or family member requires communication. Although communication is essential on a daily basis, most people are never taught the important speaking skills that can help us say what needs to be said.
Human beings influence the people around them often through the spoken word. When we can communicate more effectively and clearly, this improves our ability to influence others. Since peace leaders influence through reason instead of blind obedience, use persuasion instead of threats, and strive to increase people’s awareness and understanding instead of deceiving them, communication is vital.
For better or worse, we live in a society that judges our intelligence based on how well we speak. When promoting the change our world needs, being a good public speaker increases the credibility of our message. When we communicate poorly, people will not take our message as seriously.
I have never met a writer who doesn’t want to write well, a musician who doesn’t want to perform well, or an athlete who doesn’t want to play well. Solving problems in our community, nation, and world requires us to communicate, and we are best prepared to solve these and other problems when we speak well. The next sections will discuss several small steps we can take that will make a big difference in how we speak.
What makes someone a good public speaker? Write down three attributes that effective public speakers have, and take turns sharing this with the group.
FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING
Why do studies show that more people fear public speaking than dying? To understand why so many people are afraid of public speaking, we must understand the effects of pressure.
If I drew a three by three foot square on the ground, and I told you to stand in that square and jump so that your knees touch your chest, you would probably be able to do it. But if you were standing on a three by three foot platform suspended ten stories off of the ground, it would be much more difficult. Although the task itself has not changed, the risk of falling adds an enormous amount of pressure, making it much more difficult to perform.
Speaking is something we do every day. But when we must speak in front of others, especially those we don’t know, the added pressure fills many people with dread. For many people, public speaking is more frightening than the risk of falling to one’s death. Studies have shown that more people fear public speaking than dying. At first this might not make sense, but Gavin de Becker, who is widely regarded as the nation’s leading expert on fear, says that public speaking is so frightening because there is actually a risk of death involved. He is not referring to physical death, but the death of our identity. When we speak in front of people, there is a chance that we might be humiliated. Being humiliated, which would threaten to destroy our sense of identity, terrifies most people.
How can we reduce our fear of humiliation, which is the underlying reason that causes people to be afraid of public speaking? First, we must have the right attitude. We must reject the myth that we can please everyone, because no matter what we say, someone out there won’t like it. Many of the people who are most admired today, such as Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., were despised by many while they were alive. If they could not please everyone, then how can we? No matter how well we represent the ideals our world needs most, some people have personal shortcomings that prevent them from listening and understanding.
I have realized that someone out there hates my favorite book, movie, and song. I even had a roommate at West Point who disliked chocolate. If chocolate cannot please everyone, then how can I? When we speak in front of people, we must remove the unrealistic expectation that we can please everyone and that all people will love what we say. We must also speak from the courage of our convictions, because if we do not believe that our message is important, how can we convince others to think so?
If we let our sense of identity and ego get wrapped up in our message, then the fear of our ego being damaged through humiliation is overwhelming. But if we focus on the cause we are trying to promote, instead of worrying about ourselves, we won’t put our ego in a position to be attacked. For example, if you are speaking in support of the environment or oppressed people, you can speak from your compassion, conscience, and the confidence that what you are saying needs to be said. When your focus shifts from your cause to worrying about yourself and what others might think about you, your anxiety will increase. With good preparation, there is no point in worrying about what others might think about us, because when we are prepared we should feel confident that we will do the best we can.
Even the best public speakers were at one time afraid of speaking in front of others. Before Gandhi became a great orator, he had a horrible fear of public speaking. Talking about our fears with others helps to heal them. Are you afraid of public speaking, and, if so, what scares you about speaking in front of others? Discuss this with the group.
To reduce our fear of public speaking, we can desensitize ourselves to this fear through repetition. During the beginning of the chemistry, physics, and math classes at West Point, every cadet must go to the board, write down how they did one of the homework problems, and brief it to the class. In other courses, part of every student’s grade is based on class participation, and everyone is expected to speak at least once during class. When teachers asked me to read out loud, I thought “I haven’t been asked to read out loud since elementary school. Am I in third grade again?”
Reading out loud improves our public speaking skills by helping us learn how to use our voice and desensitizing us to the fear of speaking in front of others. If we cannot read another person's words without being nervous, how can we speak our own words with confidence? One of the best ways to learn how to use the inflection and rhythm of our voice is to read stories to children.
Public speaking is so central to leadership that West Point strives to desensitize its cadets to the fear of public speaking. By the time a cadet graduates from West Point, he or she has spoken in front of others thousands of times. In many college classes, it is possible to go through the entire semester without saying anything, but this does not help people develop their public speaking skills, which are also crucial life skills.
To apply these lessons to your life, pursue every opportunity you can to speak in front of others. It might be challenging at first, but it is good practice and necessary to improve.
Most schools in America ignore the importance of public speaking and verbal communication by not giving students the opportunity to develop these skills. Do you have much public speaking experience? What opportunities for public speaking can you pursue? To gain more public speaking experience, for example, students can make an effort to speak more often in the classroom.
TRAIN LIKE YOU FIGHT
In addition to repetition, cadets at West Point are also given constructive criticism to help them become better speakers. Many people say uh, like, and you know every five seconds, but leaders lose credibility when they talk like that. Could you imagine a military commander saying, “We are going to… like... make sure we complete the objective and… you know… uh… accomplish this mission.” Could you imagine Martin Luther King Jr. speaking like that?
These are bad habits that anyone can correct, but most people are never given feedback or constructive criticism to help them. There is nothing wrong with saying uh once in awhile, but many people say it to the point where it becomes distracting. Many people say uh, like, or you know every sentence, and sometimes multiple times per sentence.
The army has a motto train like you fight. This means that we must practice as we want to perform, because our bad habits become worse when we are under pressure. If we constantly say uh, like, or you know when talking to our friends, then it will be very difficult to not say these distracting phrases when speaking in front of a group. When people are nervous and afraid, they usually say uh a lot more than they would normally.
During our daily conversations, we can do two things. We can either reinforce or remove our bad habits. If we want to become better public speakers, we must train like we fight and practice as we want to perform. If you don’t want to say uh, like, or you know when speaking in front of a group, conversing with your boss, or talking to your employees, make an effort to not say these distracting phrases when talking to your friends. It will take time and work, but it will make you a more effective public speaker and communicator.
One reason people say these distracting phrases so often is because they are uncomfortable with silence. Effective public speakers are comfortable with pausing for a few seconds to think, and do not feel a need to fill the silence with gibberish. Looking down and taking a few seconds to collect your thoughts is more helpful than saying “uh, uh, uh, uh.” Through practice and developing a comfort with silence, you will speak in a clearer and more effective way, which will increase the credibility of the work you are trying to do.
Developing these communication skills will not make our speech more rigid and less sincere. It will actually do the opposite. Being comfortable with pausing and not feeling the need to say uh, like, and you know every five seconds makes our speech less nervous and more relaxed. When we are comfortable with pausing, we can also take a few seconds to think about what we are going to say rather than rushing into the next sentence. This will make you a more effective communicator when speaking not only to a group, but to the people in your everyday life.
What are some of the distracting phrases that you say, which fill nervous silence but don’t actually communicate anything? What distracting phrases do you notice a lot of other people saying? Do you know anyone who fills nervous silence with curse words? Instead of saying uh, like, and you know, have you ever met anyone who curses every five seconds?
PUBLIC SPEAKING FOR PEACE LEADERSHIP
It could take months of conscious effort to reduce your use of uh, like, and you know. It could also take years to become an effective public speaker. But improving our communication skills is a gradual process that is worth the effort, because these are also crucial life skills. The better we can communicate, the less we have to yell.
In this training session, we have discussed fundamentals of public speaking that are vital for all forms of leadership, especially peace leadership. In addition, it is important to be prepared and know your subject. Knowing your subject increases confidence and reduces fear and nervousness.
Public speaking for peace leadership requires not only strong communication skills and knowledge of a subject, but also compassion, conscience, confidence, and calm.
After losing his calm during a turbulent debate, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “That Monday I went home with a heavy heart, remembering that on two or three occasions I had allowed myself to become angry and indignant. I had spoken hastily and resentfully. Yet I knew that this was no way to solve a problem . . . You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.”
If your personality is bitter and does not represent peace well, then nothing you say, no matter how you say it, will truly be peaceful. When discussing the concept of right speech, Gautama Buddha said that the intentions behind our words are vital to speaking well. Right speech means not using words to deceive and do harm, not using words with malicious intent, and never slandering others. Right speech involves speaking gently, warmly, and with compassion. It also involves exposing the truth. When someone commits injustice, Gautama Buddha, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. would encourage us to not resort to slander or name calling. Instead, they would urge us to expose the truth and condemn the unjust action. That is a more effective way for a peace leader to make a difference.
When I speak to a group of people, the ideas I express are like seeds being planted. Some people will embrace my ideas while I am speaking and the seed will sprout immediately. In others, the seed I have planted may lie dormant and sprout years later, perhaps when another experience serves as a catalyst to change their understanding. And in some, the seed will never sprout. As peace leaders, we must plant as many seeds as we can, and nurture the seeds that do sprout.
Our actions as peace leaders, like pebbles creating ripples in a pond, can also affect people in ways we could never have imagined. David Krieger, the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, spoke to a high school graduation in 2000. Ten years later, a woman who graduated that day came up and talked to him. A third-year medical student, she said that she heard him speak during a very difficult time in her life, and that his words inspired and helped her immensely. When you speak for the change our world needs, you are creating a ripple and planting a seed. You never know what effect the ripple may have, and you never know what the seed might become.
Have you received any training or have much experience in public speaking? If so, is there any public speaking advice that you would like to share with the group? Take turns sharing advice with the group.
- written by Paul K. Chappell
Here are a few tips for public speaking. As you receive public speaking advice from the group, write them down and add to this list.
1. Be well prepared – Know your subject, organize your material, and practice.
2. Be aware of your body – Know what your body is doing. This will allow you to use your gestures and body language well, and protect you from using your hands to the point that it becomes distracting.
3. If you don’t know anyone in the audience, introduce yourself to a few people before your talk as they are entering the room – This will give you a friend in the audience.
4. Maintain eye contact – It is always best to not read your speech, but if you have to read your speech, look up often and make eye contact with the audience.
5. Be yourself – By building your confidence and being less nervous, you will be more relaxed and able to be yourself. Just as many kinds of food are delicious and nutritious, many styles of public speaking are engaging and effective. Don’t try to be someone you are not. Find a style of public speaking that complements your personality. When you are relaxed and able to be yourself, you will do your best work as a public speaker.
Paul Chappell is the Peace Leadership Director at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.