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  • Writer's picturePaula Burton

A Matter of Life and Breath

Picture the scene, you are speaking to one other person, and enjoying a lively conversation. A few minutes later another person joins you, then another, and so on.

At what point does your public speaking radar go off? When do you decide that you are no longer having a conversation?

How many people must you be talking to for it to be categorized as public speaking?

Most people don't fear everyday conversations. However, many people fear public speaking. A conversation requires participants, the presenter works alone. The anxiety is crippling because the presenter falsely believes that it is their responsibility to entertain a whole group of people. So much pressure. So much unnecessary pressure.

...and what do we do when we panic? Or rather, what do we not do?

Have you ever wondered why people tell you to "breathe" in situations where you are hysterical, or tell you to "take a deep breath" when you are nervous? In the event of hyperventilation, they may even have you blow into a paper bag. The biology of it is that to function in the event of the fight or flight reaction, we must switch from our sympathetic reaction (sweaty palms, racing heart, shallow breaths), to our parasympathetic breathing system. We need to breathe deeply. We have to keep the body open and relaxed, not just so we can speak with enough puff to finish our sentences, but to reduce tension and communicate confidence. Since breathing patterns are contagious, the audience recognizes this confidence and feels safe. In turn, they mirror this relaxed breathing. They now have confidence in the person onstage in front of them. They can relax and listen to the speaker.

What about the panicked speaker battling nerves? How does an audience react? If you’ve ever watched a reality talent show such as American Idol, you have likely observed an anxious contestant walking in front of the judges to audition. Even sitting at home, we react; we cringe, tense up, and watch with baited breath to see if it is as bad as it looks. We mirror the breathing pattern of the person onstage. We don’t have confidence in them because they don't have confidence in themselves.

Wait, what? The audience is responding to this body language with their own non-verbal behavior, before a single word has been spoken. They are already communicating with each other - action, reaction. A back and forth…a conversation.

What if we replaced the word presentation with conversation?

After all, they are responding, they are engaged, and there is constant communication. Suddenly, we have a participation sport! Can you feel the pressure lifting?

How do you maintain a conversation with 100 people, and be relevant to each and every one of them, without painting broad strokes?

We are specific when we talk to people. We are authentic. We respond and strive to be relatable to whomever we are talking with. The same must be true whether speaking to one person or fifty. Your content should provoke a response, a back and forth. When you are preparing what you will say, craft it as though it is in response to a question. If you’ve been asked to speak on the topic of mass transit in Calgary at a conference in Colorado, then first ask yourself why YOU have been asked? Have you worked on the project? Have you worked on something similar and you want to share how one influenced the other? Or are you familiar with Canadian transport practices and this discussion is covering how international policies differ from the United States? With those points in mind, set about answering those questions. Share the facts, your specific experience and if appropriate, your point of view. This immediately gives you a position of power. Facts, assuming they come from reliable sources, are hard to argue with. Your opinion if communicated from a place of experience and humility may be disagreed with, but not dismissed. It is your view based on your story. Remember they have asked YOU to be there for that reason. They want your story. Your version.

If we remember that we are leading the conversation by answering a question, we have a narrative; a beginning, middle, and a way to end. We feel and look confident, and that breeds confidence in the audience. They don't want the speaker to fail. They certainly don’t want to sit through something awkward, because they are worried for the speaker's nerves.

Nerves are natural, because presenting is unnatural.

However, engaging in conversation is a familiar pastime for us all, as is breathing. Focus on doing those two things and you are halfway there...let the audience do the same and you'll meet in the middle.


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