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12 Lessons From Some Great Presentators
Embrace the Anxiety A fear of public speaking is not just common; it is innate. Our ancestors had to be accepted into social groups in order to survive, instead of standing out and being alone (and then possibly being a predator’s dinner!). We have to acknowledge our fears; don’t try to pretend they’re not there! […]

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September 15, 2023

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Embrace the Anxiety

A fear of public speaking is not just common; it is innate.

Our ancestors had to be accepted into social groups in order to survive, instead of standing out and being alone (and then possibly being a predator’s dinner!).

We have to acknowledge our fears; don’t try to pretend they’re not there!

Instead, harness the jitters and refocus them by thinking of those nerves as positive energy and excitement. If we reframe anxiety as our desire to do our best, it can help us control those feelings.

Connect With Your Audience

Don’t talk to people, talk with people.

Whether it’s 25 or 250 people, in your head, frame it as a conversation, not a speech.

Think of the faces in front of you as your flock. Nurture them and your relationship with them. Make eye contact. Bring them along on the conversational journey.

Be Aware of Your Body Language

Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s TED talk and research show that our body language can send just as big of a message as our words.

Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor who has done extensive research on nonverbal communication, stated in a communication study that, in regards to liking a speaker, seven percent happens in spoken words, 38 percent happens through voice tone, and 55 percent happens through general body language.

Tell a Story

Think about the elements and flow of a great story. What drew you in? What kept you reading or listening?

Chip and Dan Heath mention this in the book Made to Stick. The same elements go into a great speech!

Paint a picture with your words. When it comes to advocacy, this is especially important. Show the faces of your students and what affects them.

Connect With Your Emotions and Show Passion

Don’t be afraid to be human in front of an audience. There is something great about human connection that builds relationships, even from behind a podium. A great example of this is Rita Pierson, who emits her love and passion through every syllable in her speech “Every Kid Needs a Champion.”

Be Succinct

Think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

A big message, only 265 words.

I think we sometimes think more is more, but the mantra “less is more” really stands true.

Use Wit

Think of the last line of Socrates’s famous speech, given after he was condemned to death: “But it is now time to depart—for me to die, for you to live. But which of us is going to a better state is unknown to everyone but God.”

Now, I wasn’t a literature major, but I am a connoisseur of witty banter and comments.

I took that comment as the ultimate example of a witty closing comment (pun intended).

Think About Cadence, and Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

The perfect example of cadence? Martin Luther King, Jr., in “I Have a Dream.” The intonation, the inflection of his words, the rhythm, and the power of a carefully placed pause. Don’t be afraid of silence—it can be more powerful than any word. I have another trick here: I write notes to myself. “Pause,” written in capital letters, or underlining words to emphasize. I read lines over and over again until the cadence feels right.

Use Repetition as a Golden Thread

Repetition can tie your message together. Think of Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Sweat, and Tears,” where this great orator would weave a phrase through both the beginning and end of a speech. I wouldn’t use this strategy all the time, but it’s a good trick to have in your back pocket.

Relax and Have Fun

I have to remind myself to do this. So at the top of my notes for a speech, I write two words: “Breathe. Relax.” When your adrenaline is pumping and the spotlight is on you, what seems like common sense may slip our mind. A reminder really helps.

Know Your Style

Do you need notes? How much practice do you need until you feel comfortable? How much scaffolding do you need so you are comfortable in the moment? Should you print out your whole speech to have on hand in case panic strikes (yes, this happens.)?
Know yourself and give yourself whatever support you need to be the best “you.” I practice my speech and record it so I can listen, reflect, and refine. I also make sure to time my speeches so I know what content to cut and what needs additional work.

Keep Your Print Large

Twelve-point font is not always helpful under the spotlights, in front of a crowd, and when your heart is thumping like the Energizer Bunny on Red Bull. If you decide to print out your speech and notes, do so with a larger font size that you can easily read when you glance down. Also, highlight the important pieces of your speech so if you go off on a tangent, you make sure to hook back into those key points.

Megan M. Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year. She currently works as the director of Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership at Mount Holyoke College in south Hadley, Mass. Megan blogs at Musings of a Red Headed Teacher and is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.