Even sea­soned per­form­ers can fal­ter at the thought of giv­ing a speech – but help is at hand, says Har­riet Green

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents -

Mas­ter the art of elo­quent, con­fi­dent speech­mak­ing

Iwas ut­terly ter­ri­fied. Re­ally, re­ally brick­ing it.’ At Bazaar’s re­cent Women of the Year Awards, Emma Wat­son, win­ner of the In­spi­ra­tion prize, raised a laugh from the au­di­ence as she re­called her nerves pre­par­ing her speech for the UN on gen­der equal­ity. ‘I re­ally didn’t think I had it in me,’ she con­fessed.

Cu­ri­ous, I later looked up Wat­son’s UN speech on YouTube. Yes, she looked ner­vous, par­tic­u­larly in those sec­onds be­fore go­ing up on stage. She ar­rived on the podium clutch­ing her notes, started with a wa­ver­ing voice, and sounded ex­tremely young. But her vul­ner­a­bil­ity was touch­ing, her pas­sion pal­pa­ble. It made clear to all those who lis­tened that what she said came from the heart. As such, her speech was a tri­umph, and made head­lines glob­ally.

Whether you are be­ing called upon to ad­dress the world on gen­der equal­ity, or sim­ply mak­ing a busi­ness pre­sen­ta­tion to your col­leagues, it’s vi­tal to mas­ter the art of pub­lic speak­ing. If you are hop­ing to break into the board­room, to pitch ef­fec­tively or to lead a team, it comes with the ter­ri­tory. Yet many peo­ple who work at a very se­nior level re­main ter­ri­fied of this fun­da­men­tal skill. In a re­cent sur­vey, 70 per cent of those polled agreed that giv­ing pre­sen­ta­tions was crit­i­cal to their suc­cess at work. But 20 per cent of the same re­spon­dents said they would do ‘al­most any­thing’ to avoid it.

Glos­so­pho­bia, as it’s known, in­volves in­tense anx­i­ety at the mere thought of hav­ing to com­mu­ni­cate ver­bally with any group. Symp­toms of phys­i­cal dis­tress in­clude nau­sea, sweat­ing and panic. The co­me­dian Jerry Se­in­feld once joked that, at a fu­neral, most peo­ple would rather be ly­ing in the cas­ket than de­liv­er­ing the eu­logy (and in­deed, a sur­vey of 2,000 women, con­ducted in 2013, found that the ma­jor­ity re­garded death as prefer­able to pub­lic speak­ing…)

It’s a feel­ing that I un­der­stand per­fectly. Re­cently, I had to de­liver a leav­ing speech for a col­league. I planned some sim­ple, heartfelt words, with a few jokes in­serted to jolly things along. Scores of peo­ple from across my or­gan­i­sa­tion ar­rived to lis­ten. Be­fore I spoke, a cou­ple of men de­liv­ered plau­dits that were laid-back, bloke-y, ir­rev­er­ent and funny. How ev­ery­body laughed! Then – as the ap­plause died down – it was my turn. I looked at the faces watch­ing me, wait­ing to be en­ter­tained. And I froze. In fact, I bombed. Months later, my cheeks still burn at the mem­ory.

‘In evo­lu­tion­ary terms, stand­ing up in front of peo­ple who out­num­ber you and are star­ing at you, is dangerous. Be­ing ner­vous is per­fectly sen­si­ble,’ re­as­sures Robin Roberts, the founder of Re­hearse It!, a com­pany that uses ac­tors and their tech­niques to coach busi­ness­peo­ple to speak with con­fi­dence.

‘As the nerves kick in, we take fewer risks and we make our­selves phys­i­cally smaller. Adrenalin lev­els shoot up, mus­cles be­gin to shake, the mouth goes dry and eyes di­late, blur­ring your vi­sion. Ev­ery­one feels these symp­toms on the podium. But some peo­ple are good at per­form­ing de­spite them.’

Even the best ac­tors can wob­ble, as Wat­son showed; but we are all able to learn from the way they con­trol stage fright. As any ex­pe­ri­enced stage per­former can at­test, it starts with the breath.

Patsy Ro­den­burg, the leg­endary Shake­spearean voice coach, has worked with ev­ery­one from Judi Dench and Ian McKellen to Daniel Craig, and uses the same tech­niques to help global busi­ness lead­ers. She lis­tens to me speak and tells me that I lock my knees and carry ten­sion in my up­per rib cage and shoul­ders that shuts down my voice. At times of stress, she di­ag­noses, that ten­sion in­creases to such a de­gree that I stop breath­ing. She teaches me some amaz­ingly sim­ple ex­er­cises, such as push­ing with both arms against a wall, to re­lax and open my back. In this po­si­tion, I count to three. The dif­fer­ence when I open my mouth again is ex­tra­or­di­nary: my voice is newly res­o­nant and pow­er­ful.

‘If you have to give a speech, prac­tise in this po­si­tion. It will help it go into the mus­cle mem­ory,’ she says. To speak well in pub­lic is as much an ath­letic per­for­mance as an in­tel­lec­tual one. ‘You can’t pre­pare silently. The voice and speech mus­cles carry out a very in­tri­cate phys­i­cal task.’ The mis­take many of us make, she says, is to for­get to warm up the voice be­fore­hand; and she rec­om­mends plan­ning a speech by speak­ing the words out loud, rather than writ­ing them down. ‘You can do it in the shower. It’s not go­ing to come out verbatim, but run­ning through the ideas out loud is so im­por­tant.’

Aye­sha Hazarika, a stand-up co­me­dian and po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor, has also worked as the spe­cial ad­viser and speech­writer for Ed Miliband and Har­riet Har­man. Her tip is to study your au­di­ence in ad­vance, iden­tify what they might be ex­pect­ing, and what they like or dis­like. As an ex­am­ple of the ef­fec­tive­ness of this tech­nique, she cites an ap­par­ently off-the-cuff joke made by Har­man at Wil­liam Hague’s ex­pense. Hague had mocked her for wear­ing a stabproof jacket. ‘If I am look­ing for ad­vice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last per­son I would look to for ad­vice is the man in a base­ball cap,’ she re­torted. Her put­down seemed so spon­ta­neous and quick-wit­ted, it be­came head­line news. ‘We spent about 24 hours on that joke,’ con­fides Hazarika. ‘I had stud­ied Wil­liam Hague. I knew he wouldn’t be able to re­sist hav­ing a crack about it. You need to be ready to have a line.’

Hazarika was also Ed Miliband’s spe­cial ad­viser when he dis­as­trously for­got to talk about the econ­omy in the con­fer­ence speech he was de­liv­er­ing with­out notes. ‘I could’ve done it with Au­tocue, but peo­ple want some­one to talk di­rectly,’ Miliband ex­plained.

‘That haunts me still,’ says Hazarika. ‘No­body is ex­pect­ing you to do a clever trick and mem­o­rise ev­ery­thing. There is no harm in writ­ing key points down on a piece of paper. Obama doesn’t mem­o­rise his speeches, and he’s one of the finest or­a­tors I’ve ever wit­nessed.’ In­stead, she says, fa­mil­iarise your­self with your notes so you’re not look­ing down at them all the time.

The most im­por­tant part of any speech is the be­gin­ning. ‘Start with a bang,’ says Roberts. ‘That’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant – we are hard-wired to make in­stant judge­ments about each other.’ And don’t rush in be­fore you’re ready. ‘Look around first, and breathe,’ says Ro­den­burg. ‘There’s a nat­u­ral pause. Watch the most pow­er­ful peo­ple on the planet – they all take the time to breathe.’

Lynne Parker is the founder of Funny Women, which rep­re­sents women in comedy and helps fe­male pro­fes­sion­als to find their own voice. ‘Any­body can im­prove their pub­lic speak­ing,’ she says. ‘Think like a co­me­dian. Start over­lay­ing your sto­ries with a flight of fan­tasy. Have some fun, and find your own unique voice. Don’t feel pres­sured into a par­tic­u­lar style of presenting, go with what feels com­fort­able for you. Say it like it is and how it comes nat­u­rally.’

This doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean you have to aim for hu­mour, above all else. ‘Peo­ple might not like that Theresa May or Hil­lary Clin­ton aren’t funny,’ ob­serves Ro­den­burg. ‘But that’s fine. Why should they be? In all my work in top lead­er­ship, peo­ple long for grav­i­tas. Be au­then­tic.’

For­tu­nately, the or­deal shouldn’t last too long. ‘Less is def­i­nitely more,’ says Hazarika. ‘Seven to 10 min­utes is most peo­ple’s at­ten­tion span. Un­less you are a very good stand-up co­me­dian or or­a­tor, it’s hard to keep peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. Brevity, brevity, brevity!’ And if it goes wrong, as mine did, she ad­vises tak­ing a philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach.

‘Ev­ery­one makes mis­takes,’ she says. ‘You have to fail a lot to get bet­ter at it.’



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Clock­wise from left: Hil­lary Clin­ton. Michelle Obama. Emma Wat­son, David Hey­man and Ly­dia Slater at Bazaar’s

Women of the

Year Awards


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