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Public Speaking: Stand & Deliver

Public Speaking: Stand & Deliver

I’ve been coaching candidates for the Presidential Management Fellowship’s in-person assessment lately, and one part of the assessment process is a 5-minute policy presentation which each candidate must deliver in front of a panel of judges.

Public speaking is, for many people, scarier than watching Aliens while on PCP. Scarier than jumping out of a plane, worse than root canal, an entire Pop-up Book of Phobias. Public speaking when your career is on the line, in front of a panel of impassive and expressionless judges, seems even worse than just regular public speaking.

How to prepare, then? First off, practice. If you are afraid of public speaking, go to as many meetings of the Toastmasters society as possible. Push yourself to take on the speaking role in class. Audition for a play, try a stand-up comedy class, ask a question in a big panel discussion forum. Get used to the adrenalin rush of being vulnerable to others.

Secondly, try to arrange to have as many early successes as possible. When I was taking Dale Carnegie courses, I noticed that one way they were able to get people with fear of public speaking to speak was to have them speak at each and every class, at least two times–and each time, have the group give the speaker a big round of applause. No matter how badly someone broke down, they got applause. And the coach always had something great to say. For the person who broke down, it was “I admire your courage.” (You can download the Art of Public Speaking here).

Now, with the PMF, from what I understand candidates can’t read from notes. This poses its own set of challenges: how to remember the points you want to make? One way is to think of your argument visually: the policy problem starts the discussion–there are two or three main issues to understand about the problem–there are three alternative solutions–each has pros and cons–and there’s one answer you recommend. Think of your policy problem as a big, hairy, sweaty, green monster, with three heads. Each head represents a different part of the problem–the head with a neck wearing a necktie represents the business community and how it will be affected by a new tax; the head with green eyes is the environment and how it impacted by the policy; the head with the big, red white and blue Uncle Sam top hat is the federal government and how it will implement the new policy. The more crazy the image, the easier it will be to remember the three angles of your problem. Take a moment to come up with a mnemonic that will work for you, whether it is a bright and crazy visual image, or three words that all start with the same letter, or five words whose first letter you re-use to come up with a phrase you can remember, or whatever other device you can think of. This will help keep you on track as you speak from memory. Consider adding a short personal story if it will help you remember which points you want to make.

Even with a mnemonic, it is easy to draw a blank. There are so many things to think about at once– did I remember to make the point I wanted to, did I just say something wrong, am I standing up straight and making eye contact?--that you will draw a blank at some point, guaranteed. It’s how you recover that matters.

Here you are, arriving at your worst phobia moment: the complete blank. Take a deep breath. Let time come to a standstill, for a moment. Feel your feet on the ground. Smile, if you like, and tell the audience that you just need a moment. What is important here is one thing, and one thing only: do not let this moment turn into a worse panic. A rising voice in your head will start to shout: I’m ruined! It’s all over, and it’s all my fault! I blew it!

Know this voice is coming, and be ready to counter this voice (listening to this voice may make it hard to ever get back on track). Have some memorized phrase, image, or breath exercise that you have practiced and can rely on to bring you back to the moment: It’s OK. I can do this! I’m doing great! Now, where was I…

Stop thinking about what’s going wrong, and breathe, and get yourself back to the issue you need to speak about. Where did you leave the argument? What points did you need to make? Soon enough, with enough oxygen to the brain, you will remember where you left off.

Again, all of this will work best if you are easy on yourself. Know that most people are going to be nervous in an assessment process like this. Practicing, and knowing in advance how hard it will be, will help you get the nerves out of the way up front so you can stand up and deliver the response you need to in order to succeed.

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Big Picture Inc

Thanks for sharing this article. Don’t forget about the National Forensics League, the Catholic Forensics League, and high school/collegiate Speech & Debate teams. As an old speechie, I have to say that nothing has prepared me for public speaking as well as my old coach and massive amounts of practice in Extemporaneous speaking – an event that involves organizing files/research, preparing for 30 minutes on a current events question drawn from an envelope, and delivering a 7 minute informative/persuasive/humorous speech that answers the question with a substantial number of citations and case studies. Again, thanks for sharing, but please don’t forget Speech & Debate!

Rebecca Schreiber

As a personal finance trainer I’m always presenting my heart out on many financial topics that make people nervous (debt management, investing). When speaking at FOSE one year I received some great advice: It’s Not About You, It’s About What You Want Them To Know. This was great advice because it helped me focus on the needs of the audience and took my mind off my own nervousness. Hope it works for you!

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

In complete agreement with Tabitha. I was also a high school and college debater, extemporaneous speaker, and an impromptu speaker (5 minutes to prepare and 3 minutes to give the speech). I also suggest joining Toastmasters after college (or even better, in college).

Another piece of advice is to also improve your writing. Being able to write well also makes you a better speaker because you have a greater appreciation of grammar and word structure.

Alexander Pyle

I absolutely agree with the suggestion to join Toastmasters. I became a more effective speaker after joining, and taking advantage of the leadership opportunities was crutial to getting my last promotion.

Debra Farmer

Practice does make perfect! As a former school teacher, when you are speaking in front of a group 5 days a week, it really does get easier. I totally agree with Rebecca – the greatest strength of a public speaker is to know and speak to their audience. Yes, there are too many self-centered speakers around. A common “tip”, if possible, is to arrive at the presentation early and talk with the audience one on one as they are entering the room. That way, when you are up in front of the group, you at least have some “friends” in the audience. And you can say, “I was just talking with [name] about [topic]” so you can speak to the audience’s needs.

Kevin Dubs

This is all great advice. I really like Heather’s point at the end about being easy on yourself. Since fear often plays a big role in public speaking, the harder we are on ourselves, the easier it is to choke.

I also think practice is the most important part of public speaking. Toastmasters is great, and there are many other ways to get involved w/ public speaking whether it be a work project or making your point at a large meeting. Any group or opportunity that encourages you to public speak is great because it an an external influence that nudges you outside of your comfort zone.

Lindsey L Williams

There’s an old saying that goes “Attitude Determines Altitude”; However, I believe that “Communication Gets You Where You Want To Go”.

I believe that one of the easiest, low-cost, efficient, and social manner of overcoming the fear of public speaking is joining a local Toastmasters organization. Toastmasters provides a structured format to help you start from ground zero and just talking about yourself, and then graduating from there to broader speaking projects in a structured environment. You will be assigned a mentor to help you get started. I personally have been involved in Toastmasters for many years and have accomplished the “Advanced Toastmaster (ATM). I attend weekly meetings where we work on speeches, impromptu speaking, speech evaluation, and we just have fun. The trick is to find a club that you can basically identify with and then join. You can go to the main website http://www.toastmasters.org and find a listing of clubs in your local area. Most important, you will find a lot of free information that will help you become a better communicator.

Alfred Mangino

Heather – thanks for your post re: Public Speaking. I like particularly your reference to Toastmasters. Many Federal agencies have Toastmasters Club within their facilities and you can attend during lunch which makes it convenient. See comments made by Lindsey L. Williams.

I have been a Toastmaster for over 25 years and find it a valuable tool to improve your Public Speaking Skills. I was blessed, at a young age, with the ability to speak in front of audiences without fear (unless I have very little knowledge of subject I’m speaking about). As a result I’ve been a Toastmaster at many luncheons, retirement ceremonies, Change of Commands (Army), making speeches such as Veterans Day, etc. One thing that helps me, and I offer it to others, believe in yourself and think there is no one, in the audience, more qualified to speak on your subject, than you. If there is someone out there with more knowledge, then let that person come forward and make the presentation. Believe me you won’t find many takers, if any at all.

Another reference you made was to Dale Carnegie courses which are excellent also.

Improving your Public Speaking skills is like improving your skills in sports, music, etc. It requires many things such as technique, coaching, opportunities to improve but the main one, in my opinion, is: PRACTICE.


Sandra Yeaman

I want to thank you as well for the reference to Toastmasters. I joined the Toastmasters club at the Department of State after a year as an examiner with the State Department’s Oral Assessment program. I saw so many talented people go through that process, but too many of them didn’t convey their competence during the group exercise. One of my friends, also a Foreign Service Officer, gives credit to Toastmasters for getting him through the Oral Assessment. My club is one of four or five within the DC area that has significant numbers of State Department employees among their membership. It is an excellent organization for both public speaking and leadership development.