Public Speaking: Stand & Deliver

I’ve been coaching candidates for the Presidential Management Fellowship’s in-person assessment lately, and one part of the assessment process is a 5-minute policy presentation which each candidate must deliver in front of a panel of judges.

Public speaking is, for many people, scarier than watching Aliens while on PCP. Scarier than jumping out of a plane, worse than root canal, an entire Pop-up Book of Phobias. Public speaking when your career is on the line, in front of a panel of impassive and expressionless judges, seems even worse than just regular public speaking.

How to prepare, then? First off, practice. If you are afraid of public speaking, go to as many meetings of the Toastmasters society as possible. Push yourself to take on the speaking role in class. Audition for a play, try a stand-up comedy class, ask a question in a big panel discussion forum. Get used to the adrenalin rush of being vulnerable to others.

Secondly, try to arrange to have as many early successes as possible. When I was taking Dale Carnegie courses, I noticed that one way they were able to get people with fear of public speaking to speak was to have them speak at each and every class, at least two times–and each time, have the group give the speaker a big round of applause. No matter how badly someone broke down, they got applause. And the coach always had something great to say. For the person who broke down, it was “I admire your courage.” (You can download the Art of Public Speaking here).

Now, with the PMF, from what I understand candidates can’t read from notes. This poses its own set of challenges: how to remember the points you want to make? One way is to think of your argument visually: the policy problem starts the discussion–there are two or three main issues to understand about the problem–there are three alternative solutions–each has pros and cons–and there’s one answer you recommend. Think of your policy problem as a big, hairy, sweaty, green monster, with three heads. Each head represents a different part of the problem–the head with a neck wearing a necktie represents the business community and how it will be affected by a new tax; the head with green eyes is the environment and how it impacted by the policy; the head with the big, red white and blue Uncle Sam top hat is the federal government and how it will implement the new policy. The more crazy the image, the easier it will be to remember the three angles of your problem. Take a moment to come up with a mnemonic that will work for you, whether it is a bright and crazy visual image, or three words that all start with the same letter, or five words whose first letter you re-use to come up with a phrase you can remember, or whatever other device you can think of. This will help keep you on track as you speak from memory. Consider adding a short personal story if it will help you remember which points you want to make.

Even with a mnemonic, it is easy to draw a blank. There are so many things to think about at once– did I remember to make the point I wanted to, did I just say something wrong, am I standing up straight and making eye contact?--that you will draw a blank at some point, guaranteed. It’s how you recover that matters.

Here you are, arriving at your worst phobia moment: the complete blank. Take a deep breath. Let time come to a standstill, for a moment. Feel your feet on the ground. Smile, if you like, and tell the audience that you just need a moment. What is important here is one thing, and one thing only: do not let this moment turn into a worse panic. A rising voice in your head will start to shout: I’m ruined! It’s all over, and it’s all my fault! I blew it!

Know this voice is coming, and be ready to counter this voice (listening to this voice may make it hard to ever get back on track). Have some memorized phrase, image, or breath exercise that you have practiced and can rely on to bring you back to the moment: It’s OK. I can do this! I’m doing great! Now, where was I…

Stop thinking about what’s going wrong, and breathe, and get yourself back to the issue you need to speak about. Where did you leave the argument? What points did you need to make? Soon enough, with enough oxygen to the brain, you will remember where you left off.

Again, all of this will work best if you are easy on yourself. Know that most people are going to be nervous in an assessment process like this. Practicing, and knowing in advance how hard it will be, will help you get the nerves out of the way up front so you can stand up and deliver the response you need to in order to succeed.

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