Most of us have been there. A pitch for a client, a business presentation, a TEDX invite, or maybe even a stage appearance to thank a huge crowd for an award with your name on it. Public speaking, in any situation, is stress-inducing for most of us. Our palms get sweaty, our voices get squeaky, and we wish we could melt through the floor.

But though we often think you have to be born ‘good’ at it, or just grit your teeth and get through, the truth is anyone can become a compelling public speaker if they learn how to harness the building blocks of communication.

The first thing I teach my clients is that the pressure of speaking to large groups tends to produce a fight or flight response. As soon as they understand their nerves as a physical reaction, they can see the importance of focussing on the body.

This also conveys itself to your audience: if you’re stiff, rigid or have your arms crossed, they know you’re uncomfortable. It helps to think of your speech starting from the moment your audience can see you.

 If you’re stiff, rigid or have your arms crossed, they know you’re uncomfortable

When we get nervous, the tensions in our body increase, so it’s a question of knowing where these tensions lie and releasing them. It might manifest in strange little ways you’ve never thought about, for example, if your knees are tense, that ricochets up your body and clenches up your jaw, and then your chest, so it gets harder to breathe. 

After the body, we need to tackle the breath. Now in all my years of working with hundreds of clients, no one has ever said to me, ‘Hey, Sylvia, I want to access the full capacity of my breath.’ They all say, ‘I know what I’m talking about but when the pressure is high, I lose my train of thought, I waffle, or I can’t make a clear point, or I speak too fast.’ What people don’t realise is that all these symptoms have the same root cause: shallow breathing.

When the breath is high in the chest, we don’t have enough time to think and express the thought clearly. Shallow breathing reroutes oxygen that would go to the frontal lobe in our brain, helping us access information, to our hypothalamus, the part of the brain that deals with our fight or flight responses. This means that instead of tapping into our higher intellect, we get the shakes.

The solution is really easy: you work on releasing the tension and training your body to breathe fully into your lungs and diaphragm. You’ll find you are suddenly able to speak clearly and for a long time without taking in extra air. It just takes a bit of practice, because we need to get the technique committed to the muscle memory.

What people don’t realise is that all these symptoms have the same root cause: shallow breathing

Now, the voice. When we don’t have the body and the breath supporting us properly, you get that shouty, pushing sensation in your throat. The other extremity people go to is the dull voice, a monotone that seems to fall on the floor. When you get it right, people automatically sit up and take in what you’re saying.

So, think of your body, your breath, and your voice as your foundations. Then you’ve got the actual content of what you’re delivering. You want to be flexible with this in terms of who your audience are, where you’re speaking to them, and what you want.

For example, if you are delivering a commercial pitch, you always want to start with the outcomes first. Explain to the audience what you’re going to tell them and what’s in it for them concisely, such as: ‘In the next 20 minutes we’re going to talk about how we can reach our financial goals for 2024, so everyone in this room hits their targets.’

Great speakers can make each person in the audience feel like they’re speaking to them personally. It’s an intimate experience that can stay in listener’s minds forever… but anyone can do it by reaching a state of flow. Just by aligning your body, your breath, and your voice you can create ultimate connection. When you do this, not only are you impactful, but it also allays your fears and nerves because you’ve entered a state of pure presence with your audience.

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