“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” grumbled my nephew Walt over the phone last week. Two years out of college with a tech job, Walt had just seen his first major project proposal shot down.
“Oh, man up,” I scolded. “It’s not what you know, it’s how you present it. What are your presentations like?”
“Rocky,” he admitted. “Nerves, you know?”
I decided to call Judy Kaplan Baron, Ph.D., a speech coach, author, and career counselor with over 25 years’ worth of local experience. “Ralph Waldo Emerson said that ‘All the greatest speakers were bad speakers at first,’” began Baron. “The point is that speaking is a skill. It can be developed, and people can get better at it. A person might think that if you’re a good computer person — or an engineer, or a planner — that there’s no reason why you should have to be able to speak publicly. But it’s a tangential skill — the higher you go in an organization, the more you want to rise in your career, the more you want to influence people, the more important this skill becomes. How do you get the budget you want for your project? Lee Iacocca said, ‘You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your brains won’t get you anywhere.’”
Promotions aside — Baron stressed that just interviewing for a job required a certain amount of aplomb in the public-speaking department. “It’s not always the most qualified people who get the job. More often than not, it’s the people who interview the best. I’ve helped people get jobs that they’ve failed to get two, three, four times before. When they learn how to interview, all of a sudden they get the job.”
Step one, said Baron, is getting over your fear. “Public speaking is the number-one fear in The Book of Lists. Death is number seven. Jerry Seinfeld’s take on that is this: at a funeral, more people would rather be in the box than giving the eulogy. People think that good public speakers have no fear. That’s not true — they do it in spite of their fear. The more you do it, the better you get.”
How to conquer your fear? “There are things you can do prior to the presentation to help with nervousness — some are physical, some are psychological. Number one: people tend to breathe shallowly when they’re nervous. If you’re waiting to be introduced, take a couple of deep breaths and listen to yourself breathe. Just paying attention to your breathing makes it start to self-regulate. Exercise is also helpful. If your presentation is on the second floor of a building, walk up the stairs. If you normally take a two-mile run in the morning, make sure you don’t skip it before the presentation.”
And watch what you eat: “Sometimes, people get to a presentation early and have a cup of coffee and a pastry. Skip that. Caffeine and sugar are like squirting lighter fluid on the fire of your nervousness. And avoid milk products — cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cottage cheese. They tend to coat your throat and increase phlegm production, and they increase the likelihood that you will have to clear your throat during the presentation. On top of that, milk is a base, chemically speaking. When you get nervous, acids pour into your stomach, and the mixing of acids and bases can lead to a sour stomach.”
On the psychological side of things, “You can pretend that you’re talking to only one person at a time. Talk to one person for one sentence, then to another person for the next. Most people are comfortable in a one-on-one setting; it’s the group that they find threatening.”
And before you start talking, “It’s good to get to know your audience. What are their expectations, their biases? What is their prior knowledge of the subject? If there are political issues between people in the audience to whom you are speaking, you may get an attack that has nothing to do with your content — it’s really an attack against someone else in the audience.”
So much for preparation. What about delivery? “The first time you give a presentation will be the worst, so make sure you practice it, and practice it in the format that you’re going to be giving it. If you’re going to deliver it standing up, then practice it standing up, because it gives a completely different feeling from sitting down. The most important parts of your presentation are the beginning and the ending. It’s a good idea to memorize and choreograph the first two minutes. By ‘choreograph,’ I mean, come up with gestures that are appropriate to the content. A budget of $100,000 could be a lot or a little, depending on whether it’s part of a school budget or an office-party budget,” and your gestures can help to signify how it should be taken. “They support your message visually. They also help hold an audience’s attention, and they give you a release for your nervous energy. And you want your gestures to be at face level — if people are paying attention to you, they tend to be looking at your face. Don’t make them drop their eyes to your center.”
Keeping your feet flat on the ground, said Baron, opens the diaphragm and makes your voice lower and stronger, “which gives an air of confidence.” Short sentences help your listeners follow and understand. “And as the speaker, you want to be as well dressed as the best-dressed person in the audience.”
There’s more, of course, which is why Baron offers training sessions. “I’m very specific and behavioral. I’ll stop people and make corrections along the way. It’s almost like tuning a guitar — you tune it, but then it slips. You need to keep tuning it until the behavior stays in place. I work with individuals on an hourly basis. People learn a lot in one session, but most people need three to six sessions to really improve.” Call for pricing: 858-558-7400; judykaplanbaron.com.