Conquering the fear landscape of public speaking
Breaths become shallow. Voices quaver. Palms sweat.
With only a podium as a shield, standing before a group of people to deliver a speech is a common item on the fear landscape.
It’s a fear that may hold someone back at work, make them duck leadership positions in organizations and simply make for excessive anxiety even during informal settings.
But there are keys to becoming a better, more confident speaker. One of the most effective is facing the fear and getting up, repeatedly, to speak. That’s what Toastmasters provides.
Rich Andresen joined Toastmasters some 35 years ago at the suggestion of his boss. At the time, the Toastmasters policy had participants stand for two minutes, assign them a topic and require them to keep standing for the duration even if they ran out of things to say.
The first time Andresen was assigned a topic, he stood up for two minutes and didn’t say one word. But he came back the next week. He didn’t give up.
“The only real answer is to get up and speak,” Andresen said.
In the decades since, he’s given hundreds of speeches, learned techniques to make it easier and found a way to help others. Now he’s president of the Paul Bunyan Toastmasters Club. He reached the highest club level of Distinguished Toastmaster. There are tips people can find anywhere, but Andresen said it didn’t come together until he joined the club.
The club recently offered a six-week Speechcraft program aimed at connecting experienced Toastmasters with non-members. The goal is to present fundamentals of public speaking and give non-members a sample of what the club setting is like. For existing club members, Toastmasters says Speechcraft provides new opportunities to exercise communication and leadership skills.
The condensed Speechcraft program offers participants a chance to practice in front of people who understand the challenge of public speaking.
“Some people are very good speakers but they may lack the confidence to use it,” Andresen said.
During the program, participants learn about vocal variety, incorporating gestures, managing breathing, speech organization. They practice giving speeches, introductions and give evaluations. They learn about voice and volume, pace and pitch, body language, eye contact, organization and preparation. They are taught not to fear dead air.
They learn survival techniques with table talk where they are given a topic and asked to speak off the cuff.
“It’s really amazing to see it happen in a matter of weeks instead of a matter of months,” Andresen said of the six-week program.
Through Toastmasters, people are able to tackle a variety of speeches from storytelling to special events such as the best man’s speech.
During a Toastmasters meeting, Crystal Anderson, Speechcraft participant, said it really opened her eyes and she gained from the chance to practice. Both Anderson and Terry Ruschmeyer were participants in Speechcraft. Participants are given a framework and subject area they can them come up with a topic, create and deliver the speech.
For Andresen, that first day of standing in silence was the start of a journey to greater confidence. He learned to make sure he warmed up before a speech, learned to breathe deeply and take a moment to visualize a time when he did well. Tapping into a time when he was previously successful helped give him a lack of fear to speak on any number of topics.
When a mentor passed away, Andresen was able to speak at his memorial service.
“I wanted to say something at that service,” he said, noting he didn’t plan out what he was going to say but talked for several minutes. “When I was done I did not remember what I said. People in Toastmasters said that was the best speech I ever gave. That was my standard of excellence for speaking.”
He tapped into that self-confidence to go by himself to a large gathering and join the people who were walking barefoot over hot coals. Again, it was about conquering fear. And for Andresen public speaking was one of those fears. He didn’t feel the hot coals, left unscathed and empowered.
“It made me try things I wouldn’t have tried,” he said.
Now he hopes to get more people involved in Toastmasters and to get them to stay longer, gaining from leadership roles.
“People that stay in Toastmasters say they get a lot out of it and like the people they meet. ... It is fun. I’m willing now to go up there now without having anything detailed prepared and have someone give me a topic,” Andresen said. “Whereas in the past if I lost my place in my written script I was done, even if I had practiced.”
Paul Bunyan Toastmasters Club meets at noon Fridays at the Sawmill Inn in Brainerd. The club was founded in 1951. Joining the club comes with a dues cost of $43 every six months. Anyone is welcome to come to the sessions.
“We are all there for the same reason,” Andresen said. “We all want to help everybody.”