Real Work: Say it loud, say it proud

What could be scarier than speaking in public? A tongue-tied HESTER LACEY takes some lessons
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Dear, dear. Who is this shambolic figure, gurning pathetically, fidgeting and twitching as though with St Vitus's Dance, eyes fixed on a far-distant ceiling whence cometh no help? Oh, it's me: knees knocking with fear, reading a poem at a best friend's wedding. I'm not alone in being terrified of speaking in public. In one survey, where people were asked to list their top 10 fears, speaking in public came out top - ahead of death, financial ruin, spiders and snakes.

This level of phobia may be a trifle exaggerated but most of us would feel some degree of fear at being asked to address a roomful of people. So how do you get your nerves under control? The redoubtable Cristina Stuart is managing director of SpeakEasy Training, and she specialises in dealing with public speakers who are scared, reluctant or just plain incompetent. And, she says, the short answer is that you can't. "You have to accept the fact that you're going to be nervous," she says. "Nerves go with the territory. I can't stop people feeling nervous."

In that case, Cristina, what are we paying you for? There were five of us gathered together in a quiet London hotel ready to learn how not to make fools of ourselves in front of an audience. Taking a course in making presentations isn't cheap. A two-day SpeakEasy basic course costs pounds 765, and the one-day advanced course is pounds 485. For that I'd have expected my nerves to be surgically excised. Except that it seems that nerves aren't something to be crushed - they're something to be harnessed.

"When a speaker fails to feel nervous, the chances are that they have become complacent and boring," says Cristina. "I won't show you how to kill the butterflies but I will show you how you can train them to fly in formation."

If nerves are an advantage then most people who take Cristina's courses are already halfway there. We compared notes: all shaky knees and sweating palms. And one thing that tends to make people even more nervous is the video camera at the back of the room. Videoing is a mandatory part of Cristina's philosophy. Catching people on tape might seem like a refined form of torture, but in fact it's not until you see yourself clamping your arms to your sides like a robot or hopping dementedly from foot to foot that you believe you do anything so bizarre.

Once we'd all been videoed initially and we'd noted where our body language was incoherent, Cristina had some other techniques up her sleeve. Some very obvious things are easy to forget under the gimlet eye of an audience - such as speaking loudly and slowly enough. Others are less evident. Walking and talking at the same time, for example - not as easy as it sounds. In front of an audience, a speaker with two perfectly standard legs is likely to start strange dance-like movements to get to the overhead projector. The solution is just to walk to where you're going; turning your back on the audience for a second is not as bad as looking like someone from the Ministry of Silly Walks.

As for content, Cristina warns against relying on not terribly relevant slides and graphs. Being forced to sit through too many of these is as mind-numbing as being forced to look at someone else's boring holiday snaps.

One very important part of the course was how to structure everything meticulously: stream-of-consciousness ramblings may be fascinating for you but not for your audience. And how do you deal with interruptions? Answering questions mid-flow can be tricky, but you can't tell a client or other important person to button their lip till you've finished your bit. Sort out queries swiftly and factually - unless you're covering them later, in which case it's fine to say so. And never say "Does that answer your question?" in case the response is "Well, actually, no."

With further weapons like these in our armoury, we all redid our presentations. And, amazingly, the improvement in all was plain to see. Cristina made me put down my notes, which I initially detested her for - but, miraculously, it made me stop clutching my cue cards like a penguin. (I have the video to prove it.)

But some advantages just aren't fair. The performance that blew us all away was the one from the Rowenta account manager. With a flourish, he brought out a range of brightly coloured irons and delivered a scintillating (yes, really) sales pitch. The climax was his demonstration of the superior quality of the Special Steam Shot. As superheated vapour curled about the room, we were all on the edges of our seats. We all agreed we were going straight to buy one. He might even have recouped the cost of his course.

SpeakEasy courses are available from Training Solutions (tel: 0181 446 6005).

TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND START TALKING

Be determined to do your best and let go of concerns - worrying uses up energy and isn't helpful.

Make direct eye contact with your listeners. Don't gaze into a far corner of the room or at the carpet.

Wear a friendly expression. Don't look as if you are hating every minute of what you're doing. Smile, even.

Stand solidly, don't shift from foot to foot. If everyone watches your knee to see if you're going to click it out in that funny way again, they won't be listening very hard.

Don't feel you have to fill every pause; they are essential to let the audience assimilate what you're saying (and give you time to breathe).

At the beginning of your talk, explain to the audience what the benefit of listening to you will be. And give a clear overview of what you'll be covering.

Repeat, summarise and link your points. For example, say "So far I have covered x. Now I'm going to explain y. Then I'll move on to the solution to this situation." You may think your highly intelligent audience don't need this kind of signposting but they do.

Use humour. But be careful. If in doubt, self-deprecating humour is unlikely to offend. Avoid off-colour quips unless you're Jim Davidson.

A good analogy (funny if possible) will lift even a boring topic like a helium balloon.

Beware of information overload. Extraneous facts and figures will bore your listeners to tears.

Visual aids such as slides that simply repeat what you're saying or are difficult to read or understand don't add anything. And turn off the overhead projector when you're not using it.

If you have to write on a flip chart or get out a prop, don't keep talking while you're doing it. The audience won't be paying attention - they'll be watching what you're doing.

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