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.