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Written by The Mezzanine Group
on January 04, 2012

I don’t personally find it much of a comfort to picture audiences in their underwear, so generally I haven’t found much advice about public speaking techniques to be terribly helpful. But it’s still something that seems to be pretty fraught for most of us, no matter how experienced we might be in our careers.

I think we generally have a sense that the more formal the public speaking environment, the more slick and perfect we have to be – which tends to be intimidating. And, I think most of us also have a sense that there are people out there – other people – who just breeze through a big speech or presentation as if it’s as easy as ordering a double double at Tim Horton’s – which tends to make us feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t.

I recently came across a couple of things that imply, as I suspected, that most of us are wrong about both of these assumptions.

A recent article on Slate.com by Michael Erard suggests that instead of a smooth, slick, cleanly delivered set of lines, people find a speech that includes the occasional pause, a few “ums” and “uhs” more authentic and credible than a speech that doesn’t. An “uh” before a word tends to signify the word’s novelty and importance, so the audience pays attention.

Interestingly enough, in the fall I heard Craig Kielburger speak in a very small room where I had a chance to see his powerful oratorical skills up close. This is someone who regularly speaks with the Dalai Lama, attends the Davos conference, and convenes jamborees of tens of thousands of kids, and, still, he wasn’t perfect. He jumbled his words once or twice, and he punctuated his speech with the odd “um” and “uh”. It made it more entertaining, more compelling to listen to him, I’m sure of it. His enthusiasm and energy carried the day and his moments of non-slickness made it feel more like a conversation than a packaged performance.

And as to whether people don’t – or shouldn’t get nervous? Amy Poehler, who’s done a million hours of improvisation in front of all sorts of live audiences, is quoted in a book titled Art by Committee: A Guide to Advanced Improvisation as saying:

“I think it’s glorious to be nervous. Being nervous is great! How often do we get nervous on a daily basis? Being slightly nervous means you care, and you’re alive, and you’re taking some kind of risk. Hooray for being nervous! A friend told me to substitute the word ‘excitement’ for ‘nervous’. That way you acknowledge the physical feelings without putting a negative spin on things. So to answer your question, sometimes I still get so excited about ‘Update’ [Weekend Update, the mock newscast on Saturday Night Live] that I want to throw up.”

Now, since most of us aren’t doing comedy on live network television, maybe we don’t want to get quite that nervous before we, say, address a Board meeting, or an employee townhall, or a conference filled with our peers. But the idea that being a bit nervous means we care is something that I find pretty reassuring. If that’s the case, why would we aspire to a totally serene approach to important opportunities to connect with large groups of other people, about things that matter to us?

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