Many years ago, when I was participating in a video production class at my local college, I took my camera and crew to a nearby grocery store to tape some random scenes of shoppers. To my consternation (but also amusement), the minute I held up the video camera to record someone deciding which head of cabbage to buy, that person would invariably freeze like a deer in the headlights and then duck behind the nearest aisle to get out of camera range. What was wrong with these people, I wondered. Don’t they like having their picture taken?
Obviously, they did not.
Fast forward quite a few years and I am teaching a presentation skills class at a local community college. “This course is credit/no credit,” I tell them, “which means you won’t be graded; you only have to attend and participate to pass the class.”
“Yay!” they all respond.
“And this course will also include lots of exercises and hands-on practice to make you a better presenter.”
“And to make sure that you discover in what areas you need to improve, I am going to videotape and play back your presentations.”
To their credit, my students all hung in there, suffered through all the tapings and critiques, and successfully completed the class. But not everyone can be so brave. Around that time, I was also teaching a presentation skills training class at a large corporation for a group of high-level professional engineers. When it came time to begin the videotaping, one person in the class stood up and said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this.” And left.
I have always wondered what happened to that person’s career. How can you be successful in your field if you can’t present in public?
I think everyone knows that stage fright affects people from all walks of life and from all cultures. (My Chinese students in Beijing were just as afraid of standing up to speak in public as my American students. The fear appears to indeed be universal.) The People’s Almanac Presents the Book of Lists (published April 1, 1977), included “The 14 Worst Human Fears.” “Speaking before a group” was number one on the list. (“Death” was number seven, leading Jay Leno to joke, “I guess we’d rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”)
So it’s terrifying enough to stand up to speak with all eyes on you, waiting to see if you are going to fail miserably and humiliate yourself. And then the camera is turned on, recording your debasement for all of eternity. Who wouldn’t want to run out of the room? And if, at the same time, you are worried that you won’t be understood because you are presenting in a language that is not your native tongue, it’s completely understandable that you would pay big money to have a trap door open in the floor and swallow you whole.
But if you can stand it, if you can step up and speak up, and then watch yourself and assess your abilities as you communicate with other human beings, you will learn at least three valuable insights into your abilities and areas for improvement.
- Are you actually looking at your audience?
Watching yourself from the vantage point of your own audience can be extremely revealing. Do you make consistent eye contact with your audience? Do you look at ALL of them? Or do you favor one side of the room over another? Do you look over people’s heads, or do you look directly at each person (which is the only accurate way of determining whether or not your audience understands what you say).
- Are you actually speaking in a way your audience can understand?
When you play back your presentation, you will immediately discover if you have any verbal problems that might interfere with or distract from your audience’s comprehension. The number of “ums” will become apparent, especially if you have many of them. You will be able to tell if you are speaking too softly (or, more rarely, too loudly). You will hear if you are speaking too fast or too slowly. All of these vocal problems can be overcome with practice, but you have to recognize that you have them first.
- Am I interesting to look at?
Do you move purposefully and punctuate your sentences with appropriate (and powerful) gestures? Or do you cling desperately to the podium, reading your remarks (or reading what’s on the screen) and giving your audience the impression that you would like to be anywhere but in front of them? The video will make this abundantly clear, giving you the impetus you need to work on improving your body language.
There are many other lessons that you will learn from watching yourself present and from the constructive criticism you will receive from presentation skills coaches Deborah Grayson Riegel and Ellen Dowling, authors of the book, Tips of the Tongue: The Nonnative English Speaker’s Guide to Mastering Public Speaking, and instructors for The Tips of the Tongue Virtual Course: Presentation Skills for Nonnative English Speakers.
Don’t be afraid! We will make it both enjoyable and educational for you!