In addition to this approach, a technique that works very well, and this is a technique that I helped do some research on way back when I was in graduate school, has to do with re-framing how you see the speaking situation. Most of us, when we are up presenting, planned or spontaneous, we feel that we have to do it right and we feel like we are performing. How many of you have ever acted, done singing or dancing, I am not going to ask for performances now, okay. Many of you have. We should note that we could do next year, maybe, a talent show of alums. It looks like we got the talent there. That’s great.
So when you perform, you know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. If you don’t hit the right note or your right line at the right time, at the right place, you’ve made a mistake. It messes up the audience. It messes up the people on stage. But when you present, there is no right way. There’s certainly better and worse ways. But there is no one right way.
So we need to look at presenting as something other than performance. And what I’d like to suggest is what we need to see this is as is a conversation. Right now, I’m having a conversation with 100 plus people. Rather than saying I’m performing for you. But it’s not enough just to say, this is a conversation. I want to give you some concrete things you can do.
Start with questions
First, start with questions. Questions by their very nature are dialogic, they’re two way. What was one of the very first things I did here for you? I had you count the number of fs and raise your hands. I asked you a question. That gets your audience involved, it makes it feel to me as the presenter as if we’re in conversation. So, use questions. They can be rhetorical. They can be polling, perhaps I actually want to hear information from you.
In fact, I use questions when I create an outline for my presentations. Rather than writing bullet points, I list questions that I’m going to answer. And that puts me in that conversational mode. If you were to look at my notes for today’s talk, you’ll see it’s just a series of questions. Right now I’m answering the question, how do we manage our anxiety?
Use conversational language
Beyond questions, another very useful technique for making us conversational is to use conversational language. Many nervous speakers distance themselves physically. If you’ve ever seen a nervous speaker present, he or she will say something like this. Welcome, I am really excited to be here with you. They pull as far away from you as possible, because you threaten us, speakers. You make us nervous so we want to get away from you.
We do the same thing linguistically. We use language that distances ourselves. It’s not unusual to hear a nervous speaker say something like, one must consider the ramifications. Or, today we’re going to cover step one, step two, step three. That’s very distancing language.
To be more conversational, use conversational language. Instead of one must consider say, this is important to you, we all need to be concerned with. Do you hear that inclusive conversational language? Has to do with the pronouns. Instead of step 1, step, 2, step 3. First what we need to do is this, the second thing you should consider is here. Use conversational language. So being conversational can also help you manage your anxiety.
The third technique I’d like to share is research that I actually started when I was an undergraduate here, I was very fortunate to study with Phil Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame. Many people don’t know that Zim actually was instrumental in starting one of the very first shyness institutes in the world and especially in the country. And I did some research with him that looked at how your orientation to time influences how you react. And what we learned is if you can bring yourself into the present moment, rather than being worried about the future consequences, you can actually be less nervous. Most of us, when we present, are worried about the future consequences. My students are worried they’re not going to get the right grade. Some of you are worried you might not get the funding. You might not get the support. You might not get the laughs that you want. All of those are future states.
So if we can bring ourselves into the present moment, we’re not going to be as concerned about those future states and therefore we will be less nervous. There are lots of ways to become present oriented.
I know a professional speaker, he’s paid $10,000 an hour to speak. It’s a good gig. He gets very nervous. He’s up in front of crowds of thousands. Behind the stage what he does is 100 push-ups right before he comes out. You can’t be that physically active and not be in the present moment. Now, I’m not recommending all of us go to that level of exertion because he starts out of breath and sweaty, okay? But a walk around the building before you speak. That can do it.
There are other ways. If you’ve ever watched athletes perform and get ready to do their event, they listen to music. They focus on a song or a playlist that helps get them in the moment. You can do things as simple as counting backwards from 100 by tough number like 17. I’m going to pause because I know people in the room are trying. Yeah. Gets hard after that third or fourth one, I know.
My favorite way to get present-oriented is to say tongue twisters. Saying a tongue twister forces you to be in the moment. Otherwise you’ll say it wrong. And it has the added benefit of warming up your voice. Most nervous speakers don’t warm up their voice. They retreat inside themselves and start saying all these bad things to themselves. So, saying a tongue twister can help you be both present-oriented and warm up your voice.
Remember, I said today we’re going to have a lot of participation? I’m going to ask you to repeat after me my favorite tongue twister, and I like this tongue twister because if you say it wrong you say a naughty word, and I’m going to be listening to see if I hear any naughty words this morning. Okay?
Repeat after me. It’s only three phrases. I slit a sheet. A sheet I slit. And on that slitted sheet I sit. Very good, no shits. Excellent. Very good. Now in that moment, in that moment, you weren’t worried about, I’m in front of all these people, this is weird, this guy’s having me do this. You were so focused on saying it right and trying to figure out what the naughty word was that you were in the present moment. That’s how easy it is.
So it’s very possible for us to manage our anxiety. We can do it initially by greeting the anxiety when we begin to feel those signs. We can do it when we re-frame the situation as a conversation. And we do it when we become present oriented. Those are three of many tools that exist to help you manage your anxiety.
If you have questions about other ways, I’m happy to chat with you. And at the end, I’m going to point you to some resources that you can refer to to help you find additional sources for you.
How to feel more comfortable speaking in spontaneous situations
So let’s get started on the core part of what we’re doing today, which is how to feel more comfortable speaking in spontaneous situations.
Some very simple ground rules for you.
First, I’m going to identify four steps that I believe are critical to becoming effective at speaking in a spontaneous situation. With each of those steps, I’m going to ask you to participate in an activity. None of them are more painful than saying the tongue twister out loud. They may require you to stand up, they might require you to talk to the person next to you, but none of them are painful.
And then finally, I’m going to conclude with a phrase or saying that comes from the wonderful world of improvisation. Through the continuing studies program here at Stanford, for the past five years, I have co-taught a class with Adam Tobin. He is a lecturer in the Creative Arts Department. He teaches film and new media. And he’s an expert at improv. And we’ve partnered together to help people learn how to speak more spontaneously. We call it improvisationally speaking. And Adam has taught me wonderful phrases and ideas from improv that I want to impart to you, that really stick. That’s why I’m sharing them with you, to help you remember these techniques. And again at the end of all this, you’ll get a handout that has this listed.
So let’s get started.
The very first thing that gets in people’s way when it comes to spontaneous speaking, is themselves. We get in our own way. We want to be perfect. We want to give the right answer. We want out toast to be incredibly memorable. These things are burdened by our effort, by our trying. The best thing we can do, the first step in our process, is to get ourselves out of the way. Easier said than done. Most of us in this room are in this room because we are type A personalities. We work hard, we think fast, we make sure that we get things right. But that can actually serve as a disservice as we try to speak in the moment.
I’d like to demonstrate a little of this for you, and I need your help to do that. So we’re going to do our first activity. We are going to do an activity that’s called shout the wrong name. In a moment, if you are able and willing, I’m going to ask you to stand. And I am going to ask you, for about 30 seconds, to look all around you in this environment, and you are going to point at different things. And I know it’s rude to point, but for this exercise, please point. I want you to point to things, and you are going to call the things you are pointing to, out loud, anything but what they really are.
So I might point to this and say, refrigerator. I might point to this and say, cat. I am pointing to anything in your environment around you. It can be the person sitting next to you, standing next to you. You will just shout, and shouting is important, the wrong name.