YES, YOU CAN NAIL PUBLIC SPEAKING
Comedian Viv Groskop on finding your voice and owning it
What does it mean for a woman to ‘own the room’? Here’s what it looks like to me. Oprah giving an eight-minute speech at the Golden Globes that made everyone say, ‘Why isn’t she the president?’ Michelle Obama using her platform as First Lady to inspire and empower other women and challenging herself to be vulnerable by being open about the personal sacrifices she made in that role. JK Rowling giving compelling, funny talks about the life of ‘failure’ she lived through, even though she says she hates public speaking.
These are inspiring moments, but they can also be intimidating for the rest of us. How are you supposed to own the room if you’re delivering a Powerpoint presentation about next year’s marketing budget? How are you supposed to inspire anyone if your boss always gives the keynote speech and never asks you?
And what if you want to be a great speaker but simultaneously feel so terrified that you think you will throw up on your shoes before any words come out?
Without having made a Golden Globes acceptance speech that’s had 10 million Youtube views (well done, Oprah!), I have learnt about public speaking the hard way in my late 30s through stand-up comedy, four Edinburgh
Fringe shows, as a presenter on BBC Radio 4 and a regular on BBC One’s This Week. None of this happened because I was a natural or went to stage school. I learnt on the fly by failing, doing it badly, sometimes succeeding by accident, getting over myself, getting out there and doing it better. Over and over.
The most important thing I’ve realised? Great speaking, confidence and ease in front of an audience can be learnt. They must be learnt. Very few people can just get up and do these things. I’m on a mission to get more women to realise that it’s okay to find public speaking difficult and to feel resistant. What matters is to do it, however great the resistance.
HOW TO FIND YOUR VOICE
When I first began performing stand-up, people started asking me to come into their workplaces to talk about ‘finding your voice’. The tips I’m giving here grew out of the work I do as a performance coach. I work with everyone from charities to banks, where women are managing multimillion-pound accounts and need to give presentations to clients. With the rise of Youtube and social media — and the obsession many workplaces have with presentations and conferences — it has become so important to be a confident speaker.
One thing that holds a lot of us back is thinking that there’s something wrong with feeling nervous about speaking or performing (or even appearing on an Instagram Story). We decide that we’ll wait for the magical moment when we suddenly don’t feel nervous any more and then go for it. The reality is, however, that moment never arrives. Facing up to the inevitability of insecurity and uncertainty is the way to own it.
The trick to controlling your nerves is to focus on a detail in what you’re saying or something in particular that you need to remember to do (make a new joke, thank a certain person). Concentrating on something you can control or on something that really matters to you really helps.
If I’m feeling rough or tired and there is some anxiety there, it really helps to remind myself that nerves are natural. Many people who perform for a living experience stage fright and learn how to deal with it. Barbra Streisand avoided performing live – except for charity events – for 30 years. Carly Simon has asked audience members up on to the stage to massage her legs to distract her from her stress. Adele says: ‘I’m scared of audiences. I get shitty scared.’ Once, she even projectile vomited on someone.
HOW TO OWN IT
The key to owning your voice – and, in turn, the room – is to realise that what you are feeling is not necessarily what the audience is seeing. After her legendary Golden Globes speech, Oprah Winfrey said her gums felt so dry that she had to enunciate deliberately in order to get her mouth around them. No one else could see this or knew this. If it happens to Oprah and she gets on with it, what are you waiting for? Feeling nervous is not enough of an excuse to avoid something. Anxiety, panic and dry mouth are normal physical responses – and they can be managed. They are not a sign that you (or Oprah) should not be doing this or that you’re out of your depth. There’s also this mental trick: remember that you’re nervous because you care and you want this to be good and that is a positive. Another tip – for Oprah and speakers everywhere – is to drink ridiculous amounts of water, way more than you think is necessary. Basic breathing exercises also really work, such as counting as you breathe in and out (in for four, out for six). Imagine your brain is in your stomach and you are breathing through your feet. Use a meditation app, such as Buddhify, in the hour before you speak. Stand in the ‘power poses’ psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends in one of the most-watched TED talks of all time, like the Wonder Woman ‘hands on hips’ pose. All these things ground you, relax your body and distract you from the unhelpful, chattering narrative in your head. If you don’t feel nerves or start to feel more comfortable, challenge yourself. Find something to say that matters to you, which your audience may disagree with. Have a moment in your speech where you talk about something you feel vulnerable about. Share a personal story, if you wouldn’t usually do that.
HOW TO USE IT
I see too many women waiting to be asked to do things or turning down things because they think ‘someone else’ would be better at it. I have listened to women tie themselves in knots justifying why they shouldn’t appear on a panel or take a live TV opportunity or accept the offer of a keynote speech. Excuses include: ‘I’m not ready.’ ‘Others are more qualified.’ ‘I might mess it up.’ And my favourite: ‘It doesn’t fit with my personal brand.’ (So your ‘personal brand’ involves hiding and only doing things where you can control everything? Good luck with that.) SO, THE FIRST RULE IS: Say yes. Say yes even if you’re scared and even if you think you’re not quite the right person to speak. It’s only by doing these things that you can work out how you want to come across and how you want to use the platforms available to you. THE SECOND RULE IS: Make your own luck. Once you feel confident (or at least more determined) about speaking, find opportunities. It’s easy and low risk to experiment on social media with videos or audio content. Tell people at work you want to speak. Better still, set up a situation yourself where you can speak. If there’s a work or social situation where it’s appropriate to say thank you or give a toast, you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission. Be decisive and say what you want to say in three sentences. I believe that if we saw more women doing things like this in informal situations, we’d see many more women on panels and giving keynote speeches and we’d be less harsh on those who speak publicly as part of their professional responsibilities – for example, Hillary Clinton, whose confident speaking style was ripped apart during the presidential campaign. THE THIRD RULE? There are no rules. We haven’t seen enough women as speakers, politicians, leaders, bosses, performers. We haven’t seen the half of what’s possible. We don’t even really know what’s possible. Get out there and work out what it looks like for you. How to Own the Room: Women And The Art of Brilliant Speaking (Transworld) by Viv Groskop is out on 1st November.
‘SPEAKING IN PUBLIC IS A SKILL THAT MUST BE LEARNT’