Dread speaking in public? Three things I learnt from being on stage at the Old Vic Theatre

Glossophobia – the fear of public speaking – affects 56% of Britons, according to a YouGov survey from a few years ago. It’s the biggest fear for women and those under the age of 40, and second overall (behind heights, eek!).
Although I’m reluctant to admit it, I’m one of the 56%. So, when I got an email about a training day with acting coaches on stage at the Old Vic Theatre, I responded in a flash before I had chance to think about the fear and talk myself out of it. “You’re the first to reply – you’ve got a space” came back the reply. Uh oh, game on.
So here it is, the top three things I learnt from the fabulous coaches at the Old Vic on presenting and personal impact more broadly:

  1. How you say it is just as important as what you actually say. Often when preparing for a speech or session, we focus on nailing the content and fitting everything in that we want to say. Sure, that can be important, but how you deliver the message is where you can have real impact. We were encouraged to start by thinking about how you want your audience to feel (e.g. motivated, empowered, shocked) and develop your content and style based on this. Also, facial expressions, body language, pace, tone, volume and language can really make a message hit home – just watch videos of any great public speakers (e.g. Winston Churchill or the Obamas) and how they play around with these techniques to make a message land and make you feel a certain way. According to Will Smith in the film Hitch (that’s a credible source right?), 60% of human communication is non-verbal, 30% is in your tone and only 10% is what you actually say – the how is very important!
  2. Pauses are powerful. A pause may feel like a lifetime to you if you’re the one on stage, but it doesn’t to your audience – we tested it! Actually, it’s a great way to help your audience process what you’re saying. Want to land a key point that you need your audience to digest? Pause after it and let it sink in. Lost your train of thought and not quite sure where to go next? Take a moment and find it again. Get comfortable with taking a moment of silence. One of the most useful times to do this can be before you even start – ever found that a presentation has whizzed by in a blur and that you’ve got to the end without much idea of what you’ve actually said or how the audience reacted to it? Yeah me too. Take a breath, collect yourself, be aware of where you are before you speak and be OK with it. Then start. It sounds simple but it’s a game changer.
  3. Are you a cat or dog? The coaches taught us about two key communication styles: cat and dog. It may sound odd but hear me out! Think about their general behaviour – cats tend to be no-nonsense, independent and don’t take any messing around while dogs are generally energetic, approachable and over-friendly. This can translate to speaking styles. We usually find one way more natural than the other (and for most people, especially women, it seems to be dog), but if we can learn to use a mix of the styles depending on the situation we can have a much better impact. It works like this – have you got a difficult message to deliver, or are you working with someone that’s very senior and time poor? If dog is your natural style, you may find that your usual over-friendliness may not work and that a more cat approach – shorter sentences that are to the point and don’t beat around the bush – land better. Have a play around with it and give both styles a try. For more on this, take a look at this article.

And finally, although the coaches were incredible, we found that we were able to give each other some really good feedback too. So if you’ve got an important presentation, get out there and test out your skills with a friend or colleague beforehand and see how it lands.
Enough from me – what are your top tips for speaking in public?
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