Speaking Up and Out

*Taps microphone* Is this thing on? Oh, never mind.
Put me in front of 100 people and I’m sweet. Put me in a room with one other person and I’m toast.

Public speaking. Also known as: everyone’s favourite form of cruel and unusual torture/punishment. According to Glossophobia.com, fear of public speaking – or glossophobia, as it is otherwise known – affects around 75% of people and it ranks higher than the fear of death. Shocking? I suppose. But just think back and consider how many of your classmates almost had nervous breakdowns before giving speeches. Odds are, you were one of those people too. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, I’d wager that you’d be pretty normal on that front. I, on the other hand, can’t say that I’m normal in that sense. (But honestly, who’s surprised at that by now?)

My public speaking training began when I was in primary school. Even back then, my mum would tell me:

  • Only write down the words you can’t remember on you palm cards
  • Speak clearly and loudly, as if the people listening to you are sitting at the back of the room (I’ve had my primary school teachers do this, making me very appreciative of this little nugget of information)
  • And of course: don’t read off your palm cards!

As a primary school kid, I don’t actually remember a time that I was nervous about giving speeches in front of my classmates. After all, we were all friends in our classroom, just as all primary school children are. So I didn’t mind using seemingly ‘odd’ things for my attention step. Things like singing, miming, and speaking Tagalog. I mean, it’s called an attention step for a reason, and heck; I got their attention. But I never realised that this was out-of-the-ordinary.

My first year of high school was one of the few times I was worried about speaking in front of people (the other times involved interschool public speaking competitions). This was mainly because I didn’t know how they would react. I mean, singing and miming wouldn’t cut it any more. High school English speeches are all about presenting analyses of texts, in an engaging, but concise way. It was also the first time my mother couldn’t really help me write it, because she hadn’t read the text. I was on my own.

Then came the time when I had finished the first draft, and I was ready to practice in front of my mum. Papers in hand, I stood in front of her in the kitchen. And so I read. She had a copy of my speech in front of her too, and as she listened, she made notes. I finished the read-through. She nodded and said it was good, and I felt relief. She gave me feedback; “I liked this bit”, “maybe you should reword this”, “I didn’t know what part of the text you were referring too, but I understood it”. This was good, I thought, I could work with this. Then, she would take my papers from me and say, “Now run through it again.”

The first time she did that to me, I think I stared at her agog.

“What?” I had half-asked, half-shrieked.

“Just run through it again,” she had said, “Whatever you can remember.”

It took me a couple of seconds to calm myself down and finally agree to that request. To which she simply said,

“I used to do this to you in primary school.”

Not that I could remember, clearly.

In that aspect, public speaking wasn’t so much presenting a speech, but rather like acting one out. That was the way that I did every single speech of my high school life. So, to all those who knew me in high school, that was my secret;

  • For me, performing speeches was like running lines.

What I found was that I had actually managed to memorise a decent chunk of my speech. This is something that surprises me every time I write a speech and Mum gets me to recite it from memory. Her logic is that “You wrote the speech, of course you remember it.” To which I would have to agree, not only from experience, but also because it makes sense. (And “Mother knows best”, of course.)

  • The speech is what you wrote. It’s in your words. And that means you know what you wrote.

Ladies and gentlemen, public speaking is one of the very few things that I can confidently say that I am good at. There, I said it. I realised this fact during high school. I realised it because I was always the person who was calming everyone else down before we had to present a speech. I realised it because I really cared about what my teachers would say about my last ever high school speech, especially after I had unfortunately managed to stuff up the one before it. I realised it at my high school graduation, where I must’ve finished our ‘school leaders’ final speech strong, because a number of people praised me on it, even teachers that I’d never had before.

In year 11, that belief was shaken. My classmates appreciated my ability to talk about Journeys and make it sound interesting to them (for the first time ever, they noted). My teacher wasn’t so appreciative. She told me that, yes, I was very engaging, but I had unfortunately neglected the important analysis of the text. I haven’t actually thought about it since, but I remember being absolutely shocked. At the time, I was quite dismayed. I was so sure that it was a good speech. I mean, my friends and other classmates told me so. I even considered challenging the mark, an idea that was supported by my friends and even my mother. She seemed quite insulted by my mark as well. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood. Yes, speeches are about entertaining people. But it was entertaining people to ultimately teach them something, to show them something that they might not have noticed themselves, to put forward and argue an idea.

Nowadays, I don’t get many speeches. They’re more like presentations. I haven’t done a speech since I said to myself in year 12, “I miss writing speeches that mattered.” (This prompted me to write a speech for my Extension 2 English Major Work.) It’s a belief and dream that I still have; being able to have the chance to inspire a hall, a lecture theatre, a stadium of people. But for now, I’m happy to help you, dear readers, master the skills of public speaking.

  • The ‘imagine-everyone-in-their-underwear’ thing? Yeah, that doesn’t work. What I found I do, is focus on an area just above the person’s head. Just pretend everyone is holding a balloon that is bobbing above their head, and focus on that. It gives a nice illusion of ‘maintaining eye contact’, while not actually looking at specific people (which can tend to derail a speech sometimes).
  • Try not to look into their eyes. Yeah, I know. That sounds counter-intuitive. Thing is, whenever I did, I found myself wondering, “I wonder what they think of my speech?”. Fortunately, I was able to tear my attention away from them before I could answer that question. I don’t think I’ve done it since.
  • I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but I find that it helps if I pretend I’m talking to a friend. The good thing is, it also helps because it encourages you to make hand gestures and add natural inflections in your voice (you know, when your voice goes up and down in pitch). Pretend you’re trying to explain something to them, but they just can’t get it. It’ll remind you to slow down if you’re talking like a speed demon, and also speak clearly. How are you going to explain this thing to your friend if you’re mumbling? They’ll just pick you apart like a vulture.
  • Pretend you’re an expert on that topic. Don’t swagger, per se, but have a quiet confidence that, yeah, you know what you’re talking about (I believe you do).
  • Try not to listen to yourself speak. Yes, I understand that this is particularly difficult considering that you’re speaking out loud. What I mean is, focus on what’s coming next, not what’s been said. If you’ve tripped over a word a sentence ago, don’t worry; carry on like it was on purpose. If you go back and try to fix it, you might lose your place in your speech. So, keep moving forward!
  • Nerves are a big one. Tricky for me to advise about, if I’m to be honest. Take deep breaths. Put it into perspective; the world will not end if you stumble. Focus on your breathing as you calmly re-read over your speech. It’s ok if your hands are shaking. Mine did that too. But I guess the biggest tip I can give you to prevent nerves is:
  • Know your speech! Don’t be that person who writes their speech the night before, if you know you’re going to be a nervous wreck before presenting it! Seems like common sense, right? Now, I’m not saying you should memorise every line of your speech (although, like I’ve said before: if you wrote it, you know what you said, ergo, you know your speech), but understand what it is you’re trying to say. If you know the gist of it, you feel a lot more comfortable, because then if you’re really lost, you can ad-lib something relevant to your topic, change palm cards, and carry on like nothing happened. (I personally haven’t done this in a pre-written speech, but improv speeches tend to pull this skill out of you.)

Those are some tips that I’ve learned over the years about how to give speeches. Ultimately, it’s all up to you. Find what works best to help you. Maybe you will learn your speech like a script. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you will pretend you’re talking to a good friend. Maybe you’ll pretend to be an expert. I don’t know. It’s all up to whatever you think is best for you. That’s the secret.

Like I said, public speaking is the one thing I can confidently say I can do well. Even in university, other students and tutors have noted my speaking abilities. Now, I want to use that ability to help others. I’m honestly not sure how, though. My ultimate goal would be to do a TedTalk. But how will I get there? What will I talk about? I don’t know. But I do know that when the time comes, I’ll be ready.


~ Song of the Post: ‘Speechless‘ by Lady Gaga, which I actually sang once for a high school speech competition for my attention step. I presented a speech about being speechless… it took a bit of convincing to get the go-ahead from my teacher to say the least.

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