By Katie Ziegler
Billy Fallon, a professor in the School of Communication at San Diego State University, was quick to answer this question at a session of NCSL’s Young and New Professionals (YNP) group at the Capitol Forum. “There’s no question: the answer is to speak.”
Before asking the attendees to practice speaking off the cuff before an audience, Fallon ran through some advice to ensure that your next public speaking experience will be less nerve-wracking and more fun.
Fallon reminded us to consider Aristotle’s concept of ethos, our character and credibility. Building our credibility with an audience makes them more likely to pay attention to what we say. The audience wants to get to know you; they want to like you. Fallon said, “I want to understand by listening to you why you have friends.”
First, we must understand the purpose of our speech. Is it to persuade, inform, entertain or honor? We have to do the necessary preparation to truly understand the topic we are speaking about so we can speak fluidly and naturally. Of course there are occasions in the state legislative arena when we need to read facts and figures, but Fallon suggested that speakers spend time establishing their credibility and personality before diving into data.
How to deal with nerves? It’s important to understand that nervousness arrives on two fronts. Psychological anxiety starts the moment you learn you’ll be giving a speech or making a presentation. It can stew in the back of our mind for days or months in advance, but we can combat it by practicing as much as possible.
Beyond practicing your remarks, spend time visualizing the event from start to finish, thus tricking your brain into thinking you’ve already done it, making the real thing less scary. Physiological anxiety occurs the moment we step on a stage or to the front of a room. We get an adrenaline rush, creating a buildup of energy in our bodies that needs an outlet. The best defense here is preventative: get sufficient rest, drink water, don’t over-caffeinate.
Fallon’s best tip, though, for combatting nervousness or speech-anxiety is to stop thinking of the event as a speech. He emphasized, “It is just talking. You are talking to your friends, having a conversation.” Be sure to look at the people you are talking to, and don’t let your personality and natural voice disappear.
Stand up or sit up straight, with your weight evenly distributed. Don’t create a barrier between you and the audience by crossing your arms or legs. It is OK to leave your arms at your sides—and don’t think too much about what to do with your hands!
As Fallon says, “Your hands know when it is their time to talk.” Our gestures come naturally, so don’t force it. Make sure to maintain your energy level throughout the talk, so that you start and finish on a high note.
Participants shared stories while they trod the boards of Coronado’s Lamb’s Players Theater, and were even treated to a song when Alaska Representative Dan Saddler (R) borrowed a guitar from the holiday show set. We hope you’ll join NCSL’s YNPs at a future event and share your expertise. No nerves necessary—you’ll be talking to friends.
Katie Ziegler is the program manager of NCSL's Women's Legislative Network.