What will they think of me?

An Airman speaks to the members of a formation in front of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing headquarters building at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., Aug. 21, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kevin Chandler)

An Airman speaks to the members of a formation in front of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing headquarters building at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., Aug. 21, 2010. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kevin Chandler)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- I hear the drumming beneath my chest as I step in front of the audience. This counterproductive uptick in heart rate rushes the adrenaline to my system. Dilated pupils, increase in respiration, sweaty palms--check, check and check. These are natural responses that heighten the senses, causing the perception of time to slow. How would a fight or flight response benefit a speaker in front of a hundred pair of eyes? It doesn't. But I prevail as I force my voice out, "I'm Tech. Sgt. Ibarrientos..."

This is public speaking -- always a petrifying event for many and especially for the inexperienced. The fear lasts not just during that fifteen minute or three hour speech ordeal, but in the days before, preparing and putting it all together: scribbling notes, creating mnemonic devices--anything in order to appear confident, or at least prepared.

I'm a Training Manager (Air Force Specialty Code 3S2X1), so others assume I am an instructor who must be good at public speaking, but that is not always the case. I have been an instructor in several areas of my career in the Air Force and when I was a teenager, I was a youth pastor and public speaking was a weekly event. But in no way have I "mastered" the art. My exposure to it makes me realize my own need to improve.

I find that for the new speaker, the source of trepidation stems from being afraid of the audience. What will they think of me? How do I appear to them? Is that a ripe tomato coming at me?

For the most part, the audience wants to be informed and wants you to succeed as a speaker. Don't let the bobbing heads of the sleep deprived deter your course. Instead practice constantly and you will be working your way towards head-nods of agreement instead.

There are thousands of books on public speaking Reading a couple helps and so does taking a class. Here are a few of my personal public speaking tips:

➤ Project your voice.
➤ Make sure your message is organized
➤ Be sure your delivery is appropriate to the audience
➤ Establish rapport with good eye contact
➤ Examples are more easily remembered than bullet points
➤ Use humor sparingly if you're not funny
➤ Go over what you're going to say ahead of time
➤ Anticipate questions (if there will be questions)
➤ Oh, and just relax

Unless your bread and butter is to be in front of people every day, a grasp of the fundamentals of speaking and the associated physical responses are harder to manage. But over time, taking advantage of speaking opportunities becomes a learning experience.

Without a doubt, reading and observation helps, but no one learns how to ride a bike by only watching others or reading a book. Overcoming the physical response comes gradually with every new exposure, and once you learn to manage the adrenaline jitters, you can then focus on the message and presenting it with clarity instead of the twelve or fifty silent faces that are staring your way.

A few months ago, I was tasked to teach the Air Force Training Course. There was some schedule conflict that caused my supervisor, the instructor, to attend an important meeting, and hence the task fell on me--like a waterfall. Even though I taught it once before and was somewhat familiar with the material, one should always have a little time to prepare for a potential four hour lesson. Well, I only had ten minutes!

The situation reminded me of a Mark Twain quote, "It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." How did I do? To sum up the event--it went well. My own experience and knowledge were my salvation to what could've been a very awkward few hours.

Don't let the fear of the audience hinder you; muster enough courage and do your best. For the loquacious people-person, even for the timid wall-flower, the benefit of a presentable speaker provides a chance to step up while most would step back. Whatever the reason is for wanting to learn public speaking, it provides a chance to step up and be an asset to your fellow Airmen for briefings, meetings and classes.

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