A Few Myths of Public Speaking

I took an informal poll recently among some speakers to determine what people tended to think were the hard and fast rules of public speaking – and see if any of those rules turned out to be myths.

From the time I first knew what public speaking was, it seemed there were a few statements I'd heard that were intended by help me become a better speaker. Or at least prepare for the next presentation I gave. Since I rarely spoken in front of people, most of those little sayings did not mean much. But I do remember a few of them:

"Imagine the crowd naked." The idea was that if you did this you had a little chuckle, get past your nervousness and get one with the speech. But really, can you get up on stage and imagine your audience unclothed? I think it would tend to make you get a little distracted! Nope, just forget about that. And concentrate on your speech. Myth Busted.

"Look over the heads of the crowd to an imaginary point and speak to that." The concept of this was that if you did not like public speaking, you could just speak over everyone! This does not work, either. You're better off finding a helpful of friendly faces – and there are always a few – and get eye contact with them. Shift your attention to the next one, then the next one, then the next. Soon you'll have maybe a half dozen people you can count on to be paying attention to your speech. Beside this core group, look out at some other faces in the audience to let them know you're including them – then go back to your 'friendlies.' It makes your speech go faster and you feel like you're talking to good friends. Myth Busted.

"Start with a joke." Heard this one only a time or two. But the plan was that if you got 'em laughing, they'd like you and it would make the rest of the speech go well. Trouble is, unless you're really good joke-teller – and your joke is perfect for your audience – chances are good that it will not go over with everybody. And where does that leave you? Up in the air, wishing you could get back on the ground. Nope, humor works better when it's used as part of a story, or when you use self-deprecating humor and poke fun at yourself in a light way. By using yourself as a foil, people can see you're a real person, and not full of yourself. You're more human – and that makes you more likable, which means that they'll pay attention better and your speech will be more successful. Myth Busted.

Beyond that, though, here are some other myths I've heard over the years about public speaking:

"A great speaker uses the learner." Not so. A great speaker dispenses with the podium or lectern and gets out in front of his audience. He concerns with them. The podium acts as a barrier. Break those challengers down if you can and show your audience who you really are. Myth Busted.

"Do not talk with your hands." This is ridiculous on the face of it. People use dramatic gestures even when they're talking on the phone and the person at the other end can not see them! That's the way we talk, so use natural gestures. Now, it may help to go through your speech a number of times and rehearse your gestures, but even with that, you can make them seem very natural. Myth Busted.

"Do everything you can to calm yourself before you get on stage." Trouble with this myth is that it sounds so plausible. Of COURSE you should try and calm yourself before getting up on stage. But here's the thing: chances are you'll be nervous anyway, so why not work with it instead of trying to get rid of it? Realize that being nervous is normal. Having adrenaline rushes is normal under those conditions. But once you get up and start speaking, you'll get into a rhythm, your speech will progress, and your nervousness will handle itself by becoming a part of your energy – your positive energy – which you are channeling into your speech. Myth Busted.

And finally …

"Memorize your speech – it'll go over better." Only under a few circumstances should you memorize your speech word-for-word: in a speech contest where you must meet certain time constraints. Or possibly where you are in a situation that demands you deliver the same exact presentation several times. Otherwise, you're better off memorizing an opening and a closing call to action. And even those who can be either very short (such as a sentence or question), or the beginning concept and the final action you'd like your audience to take. Otherwise, memorizing your speech can get you into trouble. What if you forget where you are? What if something in the audience throws you off? Then you're left to remember where you left off and pick it up – and that just will not happen flawlessly. No, the good speakers know their topic cold – and they know a number of ways to make the points that they're going to make. They do not read and they do not memorize; If anything they may have a couple of 3 x 5 cards or notes available. Myth Busted.

If you cling to the myth that only certain people can become excellent, dynamic speakers, I believe you're wrong. Anyone who puts their mind and body to it can become a professional-looking and sounding presenter. It takes work, time and practice – but like almost any skill skill, it's within the reach of anyone who wants it quite enough.