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Cornerstone: Confronting the demons of public speaking

Recent studies have confirmed that most of us would rather get root canal work at the dentist than speak in public. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to small and large groups on different topics and it never ceases to amaze me how excited I am to talk about my topic but how nervous I can be about giving the presentation. Everyone who goes to hear a presentation does so to learn and even to support the speaker. So why, if everyone is there to support the presentation, do most of us get so nervous?

June 1, 2009
By Lyle Quan

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Recent studies have confirmed that most of us would rather get root canal work at the dentist than speak in public. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to small and large groups on different topics and it never ceases to amaze me how excited I am to talk about my topic but how nervous I can be about giving the presentation. Everyone who goes to hear a presentation does so to learn and even to support the speaker. So why, if everyone is there to support the presentation, do most of us get so nervous?

As firefighters, we speak to the public regularly when we conduct station tours or give fire-safety presentations to members of our communities. But these encounters don’t seem to affect us the same way as getting up and speaking in front of a group of people in a more formal setting. Why? Is it our level of confidence, our comfort level with the surroundings or is it that we just don’t do this type of public speaking regularly?

To answer these questions, I began to evaluate why some people seem so relaxed when speaking and others seem unsure of themselves as soon as the presentation begins. Rest assured that you most likely appear and present better than you think, so enjoy the experience and remember that we can be our own worst critics.

Like most, I have received the typical advice given to those about to deliver a presentation:

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Imagine everyone in the room in their underwear – this is to remove any hierarchy from the audience;
Repeat to yourself that you like yourself, you are great, everyone loves you . . .

These techniques work for some but they didn’t do anything for me. Rather, I found that the key is to being prepared: rehearse your presentation until you can repeat it from memory – the more comfortable you are with your topic, the more confident you will be with your audience.

Two books about public speaking that I recommend complement each other nicely. The first, a book on disc titled Speak to Win by Brian Tracy (2008) takes us back to the basics of public speaking and provides some valuable points to build on. The second book, Say It Like Obama by Shel Leanne (2008), reinforces the first set of points by demonstrating how one of the most eloquent speakers of our time applies these simple lessons.

The five-disc Speak to Win set covers many of the issues we deal with relating to public speaking and explains how to overcome them. For example, the author points out that the more confident and comfortable we are with the topic and the presentation, the more relaxed we will be. He discusses some other key points such as:

Learning how to grab attention right from the start;
Speaking to small groups;
Doing business presentations; 
Transitioning from one point to the next;
Becoming comfortable with your speaking environment.

Tracy has presented to millions of people over the years so his information is based on actual experience, not just theory.

Say It Like Obama builds on Tracy’s information. President Obama is well known for his excellent public speaking. The author identifies some of the same points noted in Tracy’s book, then takes it up a notch by showcasing some of Obama’s speeches and noting how he grabs the attention of the audience, makes a strong first impression, emphasizes his key message and uses a technique (that both authors touch on) called three times three. This method of emphasizing a point in three different ways is simple, yet effective. Once you hear and read about it, I’m sure you will incorporate it into your speeches.

One other point that both authors discuss is something that is missing from many presentations – a strong ending. In the wrap-up, many presenters neglect to bring the focus back to the original point of the presentation. We can probably all recall presentations that have ended without a good set of closing points to highlight why we were there and what the presenter wanted us to take home.

Speakers who have experienced that knot-in-the-stomach feeling before giving a presentation or the nagging feeling that they could have done better will find these two books valuable additions to their libraries. By reviewing these two books readers will learn how to leave their audiences with a positive and lasting impression.

Both books are available through Amazon and Chapters.

Speak to Win by Brian Tracy (2008), published by Gilden Media Corporation
Say It Like Obama by Shel Leanne (2008), published by McGraw-Hill Publishers.


Lyle Quan is a deputy fire chief with the Guelph Fire Department in Ontario. A 28-year veteran of emergency services, he has a business degree in emergency services from Lakeland College and a degree in education from Brock University. Lyle is a graduate of Dalhousie University’s Fire Service Leadership and Administration Programs and is an Associate Instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University. E-mail: thequans@sympatico.ca


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