Learning public speaking is like learning to ride a bike. All you need is some initial courage and a sense of balance. Then you have to change gear as appropriate. Once you’ve progressed that far you simply learn when to put on the brakes.
Most of us have suffered from listening to poor public speakers. We’ve squirmed as they’ve gone on endlessly saying the same thing in a dozen boring ways. Most of us too have admired brilliant speakers and wished we too could captivate an audience. At the very least most of us would like to express our views in public without losing our courage not to mention our voices.
The thing most public speakers have in common is simply a fear of making fools of themselves. They may be college students who have to study rhetoric as part of their schooling. In adult life those who attend may be budding politicians, trade union activists or aspiring business people. There may also usually be a few shy singles and some married couples sharing a new experience in communications. However interesting the mix they don’t usually expect to start the class with breathing exercises.
Teachers will explain that these exercises will help pupils relax. The truth is that when you see others puffing and blowing you have to laugh. You simply can’t take yourself too seriously when you are bent double swinging your arms energetically. In the context of all this merriment it is usually a only a short matter of time before you all introduce yourselves and explain why you are taking public speaking classes.
You first challenge is that you have to get used to speaking aloud. So many teachers provide poems and tongue twisters, even bits from the Bible for you to try. You may be asked to bring in your favourite book and read it to the class. You will discover that they quietest person in the class probably loves gruesome tales of the supernatural while the strongest looking footballer loves lyrical poetry. Once you have got used to the sound of your own voice you progress to speaking about everything under the face of the sun.
One week you may rivet your class with your speech about spies. The next week you will find yourself giving your views on the political system or the World Cup. A good teacher will help you to expand your mind and broaden your interests. You may find yourself in the public library swotting up on a totally new subject and actually enjoying it as you visualise yourself impressing your classmates. It doesn’t take long before you are hooked on the challenge of captivating your audience. It won’t matter to you whether they are classmates, members of the local chamber of commerce or even the world synod of bishops.
That’s fine when you can prepare your speech days in advance. Speaking off the cuff is a totally different but part of public speaking is teaching you to think on your feet. So try to imagine what you would say about forks, Santa or the sky at night without any time to prepare. A simple one-minute off the cuff talk can seem like endless torture. Eventually though you master the idea of making a riveting start, interesting context and a thought-provoking conclusion, even if you don’t know the first thing about the subject. You are on your way to being a competent public speaker. Obviously though you will speak with more passion and zeal when you are inspired by the topic. So if you love sport you will find that your sports speeches will have that extra something and that’s good.
All through your life this skill it will be an asset to you. You may have to speak on graduation day, at the office party, when your best friend celebrates his birthday or even at your daughter’s wedding. Your audience may be schoolmates, the local historical society, a computer convention or simply the parish youth committee.
You learn to use a microphone so that it doesn’t catch the knocking of your knees. You will have learnt how to emphasise a point, how to use notes, how to chair a meeting. You master nervous habits such as hand twisting or foot tapping. Most importantly, you learn to write to be said aloud rather than read. You will find yourself listening critically to other speakers whether they are on radio or television or in a local club. You will start saying to yourself, “he never mentioned X” or “He should have said something about Y”. You become, In fact, the original armchair critic. Above all though you will learn that public speaking is great fun.
Public speaking is a very personal thing. It gives you confidence and it makes you more articulate. It teaches you how to put your ideas in sequence. It also helps you to make new friends. Many public speakers join groups such as Toastmasters and make it a lifelong hobby. Others are simply satisfied to be able to give their viewpoint at a local meeting. If you are really lucky you might even find yourself being paid to lecture on a pet subject!
Being able to speak well in public helps your self-esteem. You may find you are welcomed to parties, invited to functions and it might even help you to impress your boss. Certainly it will expose you to lots of new ideas you hadn’t considered before. You might, like one speaker, learn to think of income tax as today’s equivalent to the tithes once paid to the church to support the poor. Now that’s what’s called a persuasive speech!
Some people of course are naturals and can address any audience anywhere with enthusiasm and ease. Most of us though consider public speaking as a fate worse than death, until we learn to master it. The problem then is that by then it will be like the weekly crossword, you’ll just have to keep at it until you get it right.
There is absolutely no feeling like that of holding an audience in the palm of your hand. So go on grab their attention, entertain and inform them and send them away with your words ringing in their ears.
Whether you call it oratory, rhetoric or public speaking it will enhance your life and help you to make lots of new friends. Like learning to ride a bike it is a skill, once learned, that you never forget.
You may wobble a bit if you get out of practise but soon all the skills you have learnt will soon come back. Then you’ll be freewheeling all the way and your audience will be delighted to come along for the ride!