I was introduced to public speaking in the fall of 1978. My ninth grade teacher had instructed us to write a speech about “Family Dynamics” which we would all have to recite to the class. Having never done this before I eagerly set out to construct the best speech ever.
When the big day arrived I wasn’t nervous at all—not until the last lunch bell had rung signalling the start of English class. That’s when I began feeling it, that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that everyone gets before giving a speech. No sooner had I tried to ignore this I noticed that I was having a little trouble breathing as I waited for my name to be called. As soon as my name escaped my teacher’s lips, I felt this lightning bolt sensation throughout my body. I remember thinking, “Don’t die now, you’ll get a zero,” and with that I somehow willed my legs to move to the front of the class.
I’ll let you in on a little trade secret right now. That lightning bolt feeling is what is commonly known as an adrenaline rush. This is a natural response the body undertakes when placed in a fight or flight situation. If there is no immediate threat, that rush of adrenaline will quickly subside. It’s simply your body’s way of getting prepared for an unexpected experience and public speaking is an experience you are not accustomed to. The neat thing to remember is that the adrenaline rush, on average, lasts about 2.5 minutes and then dissipates, but a lot of speakers don’t know this. They think that those horrible feelings of their heart racing, palms sweating, and mouth drying out to dust are going to last throughout the entire talk. This frightens them even more and causes them to remain longer in that state when all they have to do is wait the 2.5 minutes and they will calm right down without even trying.
Obviously you can’t wait 2.5 minutes in silence after you’ve taken the podium, but just knowing that uncomfortable feeling will eventually stop is all the encouragement some speakers need to just jump right in and begin.
I often teach my students in public speaking to position themselves at the back of the room if they suspect they may be called on to speak. This way, when they are called up to the front of the class or the stage, the walk from the back of the room helps those 2.5 minutes go by a little quicker. The walk also gives them ample time to take a few deep breathes to help calm their nerves.
Ask anyone who has ever spoken in front of a group of people and they will tell you the hardest part is “getting started.” Once they’ve begun their presentation, the body relaxes and the dialogue just seems to flow. The trick is not to let those 2.5 minutes freak you out of giving a public talk ever again.
That 2.5 minute walk to the stage—or the front of the room—also helps remind you that you are about ready to talk on a subject that you know inside and out. Or at least that’s the idea. When you speak about a subject you know, the talk can’t help but go swimmingly because your confidence in the subject matter propels you forward.
This is often why you will see some speakers so charged up about their subject matter because they know the feeling of confidence and mastery that comes from speaking about what they know which inspires them to do it again. Next thing you know, speaking about what you know will be something you love to do! Enthusiasm is contagious and you will infect your audience with energy and excitement at the same time. What a win-win situation!
Grasp the subject, the words will follow.