Fifteen years and students in over a hundred corporate firms later, Sabira Merchant can safely say she has taught a fair number of people to be effective speakers. Like most skills, public speaking is something that can be mastered with practice, but the speech and finesse expert tells you how a rookie can pass off as a pro.
For many people, speaking in front of an audience can be intimidating; racing pulses, clammy hands and butterflies in the stomach are common not only for first-time speakers, but a few seasoned ones as well.
“I’ve found that taking long, deep breaths and pressing the circular part underneath the thumb are two exercises that really steady the nerves,” Merchant says. The long-term way to conquer nervousness is to keep practising. “It’s like swimming. You’re terrified the first time, but when you’ve done it a few times, you know what to expect,” she says. Coming clean also works. Confess to the audience that you’re nervous, it helps shake the monkey off your back.
Merchant advocates the middle ground when it comes to preparing for a speech. Make notes and practise beforehand, but let some parts be spontaneous, or your speech may turn out stiff. But that doesn’t mean you should hang loose and leave it all for when you get to the podium. “That’s only for very experienced speakers,” she says. She advises practising in front of someone who will be encouraging but critical; even a mirror will do. “I always tell my students that I believe they can do it, even when I think they’re going to be absolutely disastrous. It gives them confidence and that betters their performance,” she says.
“Make your notes on cue cards in the form of a point system, writing the main points you want to include,” says Merchant, who matches her cue cards with her outfit.
For a formal event, if you are required to introduce a few key speakers, it’s perfectly fine to read out their names and biographies directly. There’s no need for improvisation here.
What to do with their hands is another problem most public speakers face. Merchant has a list of don’ts: Fidgeting with papers or your clothes, putting hands in your pocket, or folding them in front of you are all out of the question. “You don’t do anything with your ears, it’s the same with your hands. Just leave them hanging loose or use them to gesticulate when needed,” she says.
While you’re speaking, identify about five encouraging faces in the front rows of the audience and focus on them while you talk. “That way, you make it personal with eye contact and also get some degree of confidence,” says Merchant. The speaker should sweep the audience while talking, not look straight ahead. “Look from the left to the middle to the right, and back to the middle again, so you won’t ignore anyone,” Merchant says.
Short silences can have a very dramatic effect, so try and pause after making a statement that you want the audience to take note of.
Even in very formal gatherings, Merchant urges speakers to keep it simple. Never use flowery language and words you’ve not used before. “Speak from the heart and don’t use words you know you’ll mispronounce,” Merchant adds. If you’re not comfortable with speaking in English, by all means speak in Hindi. Your aim is to get your message across with as much grace as possible.