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Authenticity is Key to Overcoming Presentation Nerves

Advancement practitioners who fear public speaking can conquer their anxiety and speak with confidence and authority to donors, institutional leaders and others by following a few simple steps.

That's according to Robin Kermode, a leading communications coach in the UK, who led a workshop on public speaking the 2017 CASE Europe Annual Conference. Kermode told attendees that confident speakers connect with their audiences because they are seen as authentic, relaxed, open and honest.

"You don't have to be a brilliant presenter, but you have to be yourself," Kermode said.

He noted that many people put on a "public mask" and use a different voice when speaking to an audience or presenting in unfamiliar situations in part because they are nervous. In addition to advocating that attendees practice what they plan to say (whether remarks or a one-on-one conversation), Kermode shared a few tips to calm those nerves and boost confidence.

  • Find and focus on some friendly faces. Smiles and nods of approval will increase confidence.
  • Keep your body hydrated. Water is best; coffee, tea and orange juice are "terrible."
  • Squeeze your thighs together before talking or giving a speech. Doing this will steady your nerves and boost your confidence, Kermode said. "It's impossible [for your knees] to shake if you squeeze your thighs or 'bum,'" he said. "This is a well-known technique in actors' circles. It boosts blood to other parts of your body and removes tension," he said.
  • Chew peppermint gum. Studies show that peppermint eases nausea so keep gum or mints in pockets, he noted.
  • Keep your hands folded in front of you. Kermode said that many people aren't sure what to do with their hands when giving a speech. He said people should avoid putting their hands in their pockets (comes across as too casual); crossing their arms (closed body language) or holding them at their sides (just doesn't look normal). "The best is to have them clasped in front of you below your belly button," he said.

During the workshop, Kermode also provided exercises that he said are simple to do and effective in lowering a person's voice. He noted that people's voices tend to go higher due to nerves, which can affect how the speaker is perceived.

These include:

  • Stick your tongue out as far as you can and try to say the entire Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme. Kermode had the entire CEAC session do this; volunteers who spoke following the exercise said their voices sounded stronger and more resonant.
  • Smile while you speak. During the CEAC workshop, Kermode encouraged participants to give brief remarks to the room, once with a straight face and then smiling. Many in the room noticed a vocal difference when the presenters smiled.

Kermode is the author of the best-selling book, Speak So Your Audience Will: Listen-7 Steps to Confident and Authentic Public Speaking. 

This article is from the December 2017 BriefCASE issue.

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