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Three tips for surviving a speech at a community meeting

Three tips for surviving a speech at a community meeting
Brian Oh of Permit Sonoma speaks at a special meeting of the Sonoma County Planning Commission at the Sonoma Developmental Center.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Dave Blum

Jdoing the eulogy.”

Have you ever felt the same way — that when handed a microphone, you just know you’re going to die? Whether speaking at a town hall in Oakmont, asking a question at a PTA meeting, giving a toast at a wedding, or commenting in a Zoom meeting about the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center, it’s scary.

Public speaking anxiety is prevalent in as much as 15 to 30 percent of the population. Here are three tips that will help you survive (and, indeed, thrive) at your next community meeting or town hall: First, practice, practice, practice. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people step up to the microphone, podium, or the Zoom erry Seinfeld once wrote that the average person’s number one fear is public speaking, followed by death at number two. He concludes: “If you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than camera with little or no preparation. There really is nothing like preparation to make you feel calm and at ease when speaking in public. Practice includes writing out your speech, memorizing at least your three main points and, of course, timing it. This last item is perhaps the most important of all, as our presentations always run longer when the spotlight is on us. When practicing a 2-minute speech, try to bring it in at 1:30 to 1:45. Nothing aggravates an audience more than the speaker running over time. Better to drop one of your content points than to see the timer’s red card or be interrupted by a moderator.

Second, take control of your audience. Imagine you’re a famous magician. Do you amble out onto the stage and mutter, “Hello, everyone, my name is Joe Smith. I’m here to entertain you.”? Of course not! You grab the audience by the proverbial throat and hit them with one of your best tricks. It’s the same with public speaking. You have maybe five seconds to attract peoples’ attention, so “bang” that opener, whether it’s with a provocative question, a pithy quote, a jaw-dropping statistic, or a personal story. The point is to transform the meeting from the get-go, from ordinary to extraordinary. Later, when bringing your speech to a close, deliver your knock-out punch, your “mic drop” moment — a pithy, final line that lingers in peoples’ memories. Bonus points if your closer “bookends” your opener: If you open with a quote, refer back to that quote in your closer.

Lastly, make eye contact. Whether you’re in person or online, your speech will have far more impact if you establish eye contact with the audience. There’s something about the eyes that instantly creates connection and rapport. Online, this is as simple as talking to the camera, rather than the Zoom gallery. (I tend to talk to a plastic dinosaur that I place on top of my computer camera.) When in person, rather than trying to make eye contact with everyone, shotgun style, focus your eye contact on only two or three people in the audience. Perhaps choose one person to the left, one in the middle, and one on the right, and talk only to them. Strangely, enough, when you make a connection with one person, the audience senses that connection and feels like you’re talking to all of them.

With just these three tips, I promise you will survive your next public speaking opportunity — and without kicking the bucket. The effort is definitely worth it. As Jerry Seinfeld also said, “You have to motivate yourself with challenges. That’s how you know you’re alive.”

Dave Blum is the president of Santa Rosa Toastmasters Club 182, a public speaking club that meets, hybrid style, both online and in person, every Monday night from 7-9 p.m., at the Round Table at 2065 Occidental Rd. in Santa Rosa. The club is accepting new members; for more information, drop Dave an email at [email protected], or visit facebook. com/santarosatoastmasters or 182.toastmastersclubs. org.