Sept. 1-7, 2000
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Don't be afraid to speak up

By Anne Bromley

Fear of public speaking outranks fear of death, divorce and dismemberment in survey after survey, said Judith Reagan, the associate director of the Teaching Resource Center and a member of the drama faculty.

So don't be afraid to join the club -- or admit you're already a member. Whether teaching a lecture class of 300, leading a staff meeting of 40 employees or participating on a team project, if you quake everytime you think of talking aloud, you're not alone.

Make eye contact:

Be aware of the whole room and look at lots of different people, not just at one person with whom you have a comfortable connection.
Don't look between people or toward their ears -- it'll be disconcerting because they won't know whether you¹re looking at them or not.
Don't survey the room like an old typewriter carriage going back and forth.

But you needn't have that déjà-vu nightmare every time, according to Reagan, who reprised her much-praised session on making presentations at the TRC's August teaching workshop.

In fact, if you have no qualms whatsoever about standing up in front of an audience, you might want to check your pulse. Getting nervous is actually a good sign -- it means you're engaged with the activity and want to do well. "You can harness that energy to work for you," said Reagan, who was her own best example, exhibiting poise and humor which enlivened and enlightened her presentation.

It's like any other skill -- you can learn what it takes to give better talks.

"Anyone who is really good at public speaking, they've learned it, either consciously or unconsciously," Reagan said.

There are several exercises that, when done regularly for just a few minutes a day, can help a speaker feel more in control. You can work on reducing your stage fright, increasing your concentration and strengthening your voice.

Think about it and pinpoint what makes you feel nervous -- is it the number of people in the audience? Presenting new material? Reagan advises people to pick one element of public speaking at a time to work on, rather than trying to tackle the whole range of characteristics at once.

You can practice by yourself at home, but remember that your focus when giving your talk should be outward, toward the people with whom you're trying to communicate, not inward, obsessing about how awful you must be. Don't berate yourself.

One of the biggest improvements you can make is using eye contact. Although she stressed that in different cultures eye contact can mean different things, in our culture, it conveys confidence and trust, even likeability. If you don't use it, your audience may think you're not just nervous, but unprepared -- or worse, that you're lying. You can also learn how you're doing; you can tell if people can hear you, if they're puzzled or getting it. You can make quick adjustments and wipe away that sinking feeling.

She put her helpful techniques into action, getting the group of faculty and graduate teaching assistants up out of their seats to practice not only breathing exercises, but hurling Shakespearean insults at one another. (All in good fun, of course).

Yes, breathing. It's often taken for granted, but provides the foundation for making the best of your voice. Reagan recommends strengthening the diaphragm with a couple of exercises that develop control and the ability to project your voice. Anxiety can lead you to a shallow gasping that won't keep you from drowning.

You're supposed to put your hands on your belly (don't worry, no one has to watch) and take in a big breath, feeling the diaphragm expand your stomach muscles; release a sustained "ah" sound while letting the air out; repeat the exercise regularly and see how long you can extend the "ah" as you watch the clock. This will also help you increase your volume, if needed. You want to aim for reaching everyone, not yelling.

In the other exercise, again with your hands on your belly to make sure it's working, let go a series of "huh, huh, huh² in short bursts -- this is another way to practice deep breathing from the diaphragm. Other qualities of voice besides volume that affect presentation: articulation, speed, pitch and accent or dialect.

Other physical aspects important in public speaking include posture, gesturing and maintaining a relaxed demeanor.

If you're reading a paper, you can write in cues to remind yourself of connecting with the audience, like slow down, look up, smile, pause.

Remember: communication is a circular process between speaker and listener.

Judith Reagan is available to give public speaking workshops to departments. She also will be giving this session again at the Jan. 15 teaching workshop. Contact her through the TRC at 982-2815 or trc-uva@virginia.edu.


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