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La Leche League: Who Me, Speak in Public?

Ann Calandro
Waxhaw, North Carolina, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 6, December 1997 - January 1998, pp. 142-43

When you are asked to speak in public, does your heart beat a little faster and do your palms begin to sweat? Do you worry for weeks before the engagement and ask yourself over and over, "Why did I commit to this?"

If any of this describes you, you are not alone. It has been said that public speaking is one of the most dreaded and terrifying events in life. Women have been known to say that they would rather go through labor twice than stand up and give a presentation!

Looked at from another angle, it is truly a compliment to be asked to speak. Others think highly of your knowledge and expertise.

How can you share your knowledge in a way that will be a positive experience for both you and your audience? Most of us worry about things that will never happen; in fact, most of us are nervous about being nervous. What can be done to get ready?

If it is a La Leche League speaking engagement, you will need to submit an outline for review, to your District Advisor or to your Professional Liaison Leader if the audience will be health care providers. This article is not as much about speaking as a Leader as it is an article about public speaking in general. All of these tips can be used in a variety of settings.

First ask yourself if you want to make the presentation. Do you have time? Will the speech preparation and planning be something you can accomplish right now? Every speech deserves the best you can bring to it. Are your children of an age when this can reasonably be accomplished? If the answer is yes, proceed to the next step, learning about your audience.

It is important to find out as much as possible about who will be in attendance. Will you be speaking to a group of people who know very little about the subject, children, students, young adults, professionals, a mixed group?

Tailor the talk to the interest and knowledge level of the group. What are the main points you want to get across? Make an outline of the information you want to present in an order that flows easily. Preparing ahead is the key to being able to relax and talk in a way both you and audience will enjoy. When you give a presentation the time, consideration and preparation it deserves, you will be proud of your accomplishment.

Next jot down ideas to expand the talk. Begin with an opening idea that grabs the audience's interest and lets them know the topic. Follow this with the main body of the talk where you relay the information you want to share. End with a summary, perhaps another idea to get them thinking, and a closing statement.

Most speakers do not memorize or read their speeches. They make note cards containing the main ideas of the talk to jog their memory and keep their thoughts in order. Some speakers use spiral bound note cards so they won't get mixed up if accidentally dropped. You may want to keep your notes in case you present the same talk again at a later date.

Decide if you want to use audio-visual aids. Do you have slides or a video tape to help clarify your points? Props? Charts? Many people like to illustrate their talk in some way, turning the presentation into a "show and tell" session. Some speakers prefer to use overheads rather than slides because the room does not have to be darkened to use them. This makes it easier for the audience to take notes if they desire; any sleepiness caused by dimmed lighting is reduced.

Be sure that props are visible to the entire audience. Stand to the left if you are right-handed so you can point comfortably. When speaking, look at the audience; don't speak to your visual aid. Carefully used, visuals can really enhance your presentation.

As you plan your presentation, think about other presentations that you have enjoyed. What did the speakers do to make the presentation pleasing? Did they interject personal experiences? Did they tell stories or jokes? How did they make you feel at ease? Every speaker has his or her own style but it is quite all right to borrow ideas from others.

Before your talk, practice and practice. You may want to stand in front of a mirror. Keep your time restraints in mind. Most speakers worry about finishing too soon, but once the talk begins, they may actually go over their allotted time. Practice natural gestures and use them to make your talk more interesting. Practice changing the speed at which you talk, emphasizing words by speaking at different cadences. Use pauses to help get points across. Don't forget the power of humor.

Arrive at your talk well-rested, relaxed, prepared and well-fed! Remember to eat something nutritious beforehand so that you are not hungry and your blood sugar is not low. Good ideas are whole grain snacks, fresh fruit or decaffeinated tea.

From the beginning, your audience will begin forming opinions, before you even open your mouth. Dress appropriately. Most speakers dress in more businesslike attire than the audience, paying careful attention to their clothing, shoes, hosiery, jewelry, hairstyle and makeup. How you dress is easily controlled. Be sure your clothing allows you to breathe easily and your shoes are comfortable for standing for a while. Make that first impression a good one!

Your facial expression is important. Even if you are scared (and everyone, even the professional speaker, gets butterflies), make an effort to relax your face. Make eye contact with the audience. Strive to look interested and pleasant.

Most speakers get moist palms and a dry mouth. It's part of being nervous. You may want to keep a glass of water to sip nearby as well as a handkerchief for wiping your hands or catching a surprise sneeze. Some women like to apply a light coating of petroleum jelly or lip gloss to their lips and front teeth so that they don't stick together.

When not using your hands to gesture, keep them at your sides or holding your note cards. Experts discourage speakers from putting hands into pockets or holding onto the lectern for dear life. Stand up straight and relax your shoulders.

Your voice needs to project throughout the room so that everyone can hear. If you are soft-spoken you will need a microphone adjusted to your height before the talk begins.

It is important to check out the room before you speak, checking the microphone, the placement and working order of electrical outlets, the location of the light switches. Be sure your slides or overheads are in the correct order. Rewind tapes or videos. Check the room temperature and be sure it is not too hot or too cold. (Cool is better!)

If you are using handouts, be sure they are ready. Most professionals agree that it is best to give them out at the end of the talk so the audience listens to you rather than reads the handouts during your presentation.

Many speakers like to use a lectern because it is a handy place for notes, water and other items. Some, however, consider it a barrier between the speaker and the audience. Some speakers stand beside the lectern, rather than behind it, in order to be more part of the group. If a lectern is used, it is important not to lean on it or slump down while giving the presentation.

Remember that all speakers have nervous energy stored inside before beginning to speak. Channel this energy into strength and enthusiasm. Never begin with an apology such as, "I am not really used to speaking to groups but..." Make eye contact and smile. Speak from your heart.

Consider your audience friendly. When the talk begins, you will begin a rapport with them and relax. Tell them a story. Ask them a question. Use quotes if you have some. Speak loudly, clearly and in complete sentences. Work on avoiding "uh" and "ah," which make you appear nervous. Silence too, can be a powerful tool. A few seconds to stand, reflect and gather your thoughts can work as part of your talk. If you make a mistake, pause, regroup, put it behind you and continue your talk. Audiences are quick to judge but are also human and forgiving. Most of them wouldn't or couldn't do what you are doing!

You will learn something from every speaking engagement, gaining confidence in your abilities. You may want to learn more about public speaking through books from your public library. You will often think of ways that your presentations could have been better and wish you had done things differently. That is the way all great speakers begin.

And remember, Leaders already have a great deal of experience speaking to a group - at Series Meetings!

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