Ask An Expert: Public Speaking

A reader wants to know: “I have a big day coming up. I am hosting my husband’s 60th birthday party and many of our colleagues, friends and family will be there. I am planning to make a speech and a presentation. I don’t like public speaking and I want to make sure I am on top of my game. Can you give me some tips?”

And here’s an answer from Dr. Kelly Murphy, a Baycrest psychologist with expertise in memory training:

Whether you are making a speech at a celebration or giving an important presentation at work, there are several things you can do to help you, both leading up to the big day and on the day itself. All are based on what science has told us about what factors and behaviours impact how well we can remember information when we need to.

Leading up to the important day:
Plan ahead and give yourself enough time to prepare. Once you know what you need to do, review and repeat the plan and speech in your mind so that you don’t forget a step. Try recalling them from memory, then go back and check your accuracy. This effortful retrieval from memory helps to encode the information in your brain and is much more effective than passively reviewing it by reading it on paper or on a computer screen.

Try to get a good night’s sleep, but don’t worry if you have trouble sleeping the night before the big day. Your adrenalin will probably kick in and you won’t feel tired. However, consistent bad sleep does take its toll so it’s important to try to develop good sleep habits overall.

Troubleshooting and thinking of what could go wrong is a good idea. It helps prepare you to manage situations you did not expect.

Maintain perspective. How you choose to view the situation is very important. Try to maintain a realistic, positive perspective and don’t catastrophise the situation. What’s the worst that could happen if things don’t go as well as you hoped?

On the big day:
Eat the right foods to give you a brain boost. A good breakfast is important. Breakfast helps regulate the blood sugar levels in your body. Some foods act as short term stimulants. In studies, sugar has been shown to give a short term memory boost whereby participants who were given some sugar right before a memory test did better. If you have a mid-morning meeting, drink a glass of orange juice just before the meeting. The caffeine in a cup of coffee can have a similar effect.

A healthy afternoon snack, high in complex carbohydrates, such as a couple of oatmeal cookies, whole grain muffin, fruit or an energy bar could give you the boost that you need. If the party is in the evening, have a couple of hors d’ouevres (but skip the alcohol until after your presentation).

A little physical activity just before the event can be beneficial. Walk briskly to get the oxygen flowing, park your car a little further from the venue or walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. It doesn’t have to be a big workout. Studies have shown that groups of people who did some form of mild exercise before a test, performed better.

Breathe deeply to calm your nerves. There is an optimal level of stress for everyone but you don’t want to be too anxious. When you are nervous, there is a physiological response — your heart beats faster, you breathe more rapidly, you may perspire.. Take a moment before the event to relax. Your body responds to deep breathing by slowing down.

Give yourself plenty of time to get there and have good directions handy if it is somewhere that you have never been before. You don’t want to be late or worry about finding the location.

Photo © Tomaz Levstek

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