Weddings, Bachelor/Bachelorette Parties, Holiday Gatherings and Funerals are all situations in which we may find ourselves needing (or wanting) to give a speech. For many people, this is the first time they are prompted to improve their public speaking skills. For others, it is merely a nail-biting event at which we desperately want to succeed.
Speaking professionals refer to these kinds of talks as “Social Speeches,” or Special Occasion Speeches, to differentiate them from business or political ones. The important distinction is in the name: speeches in this milieu are meant to evoke a particular kind of closeness or connection. Generally if you’re asked to speak at these events, the organizer will be less concerned with your polish and perfection, and more with your delivery of appropriately funny and/or touching anecdotes in a good spirited way.
Whether this is the one and only time you’ll get up in front of people to speak, or just another step in your journey to become a better communicator, there are several key lessons you should observe when planning and executing a social speech.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Yes, social speeches are somewhat lower stress than professional keynotes. They are usually unpaid, often unsupervised, and – because the organizer is not usually an event professional – they are given minimal attention until the big day. Don’t let this lackadaisical and freewheeling environment fool you: to do a great job at public speaking – regardless of the context – you need to practice your heart out. If you use the approach described in the A-Ha! Method, you can save significant time and may find it easier to memorize and nail those points.
You Don’t Have to Be Funny
Film and TV tend to represent these social speeches as comedic moments. But if you don’t have the halcyon delivery of Owen Wilson or the hipster gravitas of Vince Vaughn, you may not be perfectly suited to hitting those jokes repeatedly. This is not to say that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be funny, but the suggestion is to know your voice and to embrace it. If you’re more serious, be more serious and heartfelt. If you’ve got a light touch, do that. Either way, you’ll be more successful if you embrace your own POV than trying to fit into someone else’s mold.
Shorter is Better
Most social speeches should be kept under 5 minutes. Just think about the typical wedding: if 6 people/groups need to speak, and each takes 10 minutes, you’ll be sitting there for a solid hour listening to family members and friends drone on. Take a cue from what you would enjoy and keep it to a nice tight 2-3 minutes. The shorter timeframe will help you focus and give you clarity. After all, it’s better to say one thing really well than 5 things poorly.
Grab The A-Ha! Moment
In every social speech there is typically one line: an anecdote, observation, expression of love or broader social issue, that is the memorable moment from the speaker. Much as we do when giving a keynote or conference talk using the A-Ha! Method, our process begins by thinking about those moments of connection with the audience, and then building a talk around it. This emotional high-point is the thing that will have the biggest impact, so it needs to be strong. In most social speeches, there is time for one A-Ha! Moment in the middle, and a strong tag at the end that wraps everything up and brings it together.
Strong Openings and Closings
There is a tendency for most speakers to “fill” time as the stage or mic is being transitioned to them. “Hi everyone, how’s it going?” is a great example, or mentioning the previous speaker(s) to then ease into your speech. It makes the speaker feel better, but increases the time from the switch over until your first point of brilliance is expressed. If you can, take a deep breath and launch directly into your speech without any transitional phrases. The same goes for the end: as you create the last line of the talk, make sure to clearly differentiate between the end of your talk and the start of a toast (for example). Toasts or blessings are not endings, and should be treated as separate from your core talk.
Many professional speakers, when asked to talk about their most important talks, refer to these social speeches. You may spend your life on a keynote stage, traveling around the world – but perhaps the most important memories you’ll make will be much closer to home. So no matter where you are in your journey of improving your communications skills, now’s the right time to lean in.
Here’s a toast to your upcoming social speeches – may you give them and give them well, and may you regale all your family and friends with your stories and talks at your next special occasion event. Cheers!
Getting and keeping people’s attention is harder than ever as a public speaker. In this episode, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan explore the techniques that public speakers use to practice and develop their work, and how this helps build confidence.
I remember my grandfather – whose BMI was much lower than mine – carrying a handkerchief in the dead of winter to mop his ever-sweaty brow. My larger frame (thicc by today’s standards) has made me even more sweaty in every aspect of my life.
In general, I’ve come to terms with it. But when you’re watching your TED talk and see your arms lifted with sweat stains clearly visible through your dress shirt, it feels like too much. Being sweaty at the gym or beach poses minimal professional risk, but – even if people won’t tell you to your face – a super sweaty body or handshake isn’t great when you’re trying to bill $10,000/hour.
Over my 20 years of paid, professional speaking I’ve tried almost everything to ameliorate this problem, from potions to just giving up and embracing my body’s quirks. Eventually I settled on a few tricks and strategies that have served me well. If you’re not a super-sweater, you might still find these useful – because even Zoom doesn’t hide those pits. And as any sweaty person knows, once you’re conscious of your sweat, it makes it almost impossible to focus on anything else (e.g. the speech you’re supposed to give).
Antiperspirant is the first way most people try to solve this problem. But because adrenaline and increased blood pressure tend to increase sweating, speeches are more likely than most situations to “break through” supermarket brands. I recommend switching to a clinical-strength antiperspirant that you carry with you for talks (live or online). Asking your doctor for a recommendation is a great way to start. Don’t use the stuff regularly, or you’ll develop a tolerance for it (and potential other health complications) – so keep it for the “special” occasions of your speaking. If you don’t wear any antiperspirant on most occasions or days, you’ll find that the selective application of the stuff will help you on the days you need it most.
Adding layers of undergarments can be a good go-to, but there’s a delicate balance between stopping your sweat from showing and raising your basal body temperature through excessive clothing. If you are an undershirt kind of person, a brand I’ve found to be highly effective is Eji’s. They make a line of “sweat proof” items that have a special liner to prevent your pits – and other parts – from showing. Whatever you do, don’t double up on undershirts or underwear – it will only make you hotter, and definitely won’t help.
The big secret of professional public speakers is the use of a strategic blazer. Men, women and non-binary speakers can find a range of great blazers that look good, project the right image, and help you keep from showing your sweat. The key is to not take the blazer off after your talk until the situation has calmed down, so to speak. This can be especially difficult in venues with inadequate air conditioning, but it’s a low price to pay for protection. And pro tip: black is both slimming and hides sweat the best.
While your hands being sweaty during your talk is normal and really no big deal, sweaty hands after a talk – particularly when shaking them with prospective clients or event bookers – can be a major no-no. Take a minute after you’re done pitching or speaking from the stage to go to the restroom, wash your hands, dry them thoroughly, and return to the action in the venue. If that is impossible, a small amount of hand sanitizer (which you probably have at all times nowadays) and a handkerchief in your pocket can give your palms a quick refresh. Of course, you can also always use the pandemic as an excuse to elbow bump instead.
Body Temperature Regulation
There’s a reason that most TV studios are freezing cold. This serves two purposes: to keep the equipment and the hosts from overheating. Sweat ruins clothes, makeup and a 4K high-def close up, and the same will be true for you as a speaker. Now, you may not have control of the venue’s temperature – and particularly if you’re in Europe, the venue will most likely be on the warm side – but there are things you can do. First, dress for the venue prior to your talk. If it’s warm (and you’ll know because you followed my advice to scope it out beforehand), keep your blazer off and/or wear lighter clothes prior to the start of your talk. Don’t shower, work out or otherwise over-exert yourself in the hour before your speech or pitch begins, and do what you can to keep yourself calm. If you’re broadcasting from home – turn down the AC as low as it will go and freeze your room before the talk starts – you can set it back to a normal/cool temperature once you’re finished. And remember to drink lots of water…but not so much that you can’t time your bathroom breaks.
Excessive sweating can become a clinical condition called Hyperhidrosis. Even if you don’t have this rare but often-debilitating issue, you can suffer from sweating that is “excessive” (a social, not medical construct) during and after important talks. The critical thing to remember, of course, is that this is perfectly normal. You should feel sweaty during and after a talk because you put your heart and soul into it, and that nervous reaction is absolutely natural. However, if you don’t feel confident and comfortable in your body under those circumstances, it will affect your performance. And the most critical thing is to ensure that your talk goes well, that you land your points, and that the audience is changed by what you have to say. Anything that gets in the way of that – and it’s usually something in your head – is detrimental to success. That’s why we teach the importance of practice, confidence and content-centricity in our self-directed online course, The A-Ha! Method.
The phrase “Never let them see you sweat” was coined by advertising guru Phil Slott in his 1980s commercials for the antiperspirant Dry Idea. It caught on precisely because of its broader meaning: that you need to project confidence and calm, no matter how you’re feeling inside, if you want to conquer the highest peaks of your profession. Public speaking, pitching and meeting management are types of performance, and good performers invest in managing their sweat to create the right impression.
The content comes first. But staying high and dry is always a good idea.
In this introduction to, and first episode of The A-Ha! Method Podcast, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan talk through their own different paths to public speaking and the challenges they faced along the way. We’ll also look at why public speaking can be so hard for people – even those who are exceptionally good at other kinds of communication.
Over the past 7 years, I have been working to overcome my gripping and limiting fear of public speaking. After pushing myself out of my comfort zone and making public speaking improvement a priority, I have found that the benefits of liking and, dare I say, even loving public speaking instead of hating and fearing it are ABSOLUTELY LIFE CHANGING! Here is my story.
Face turning bright red like a tomato.
Mind going blank and having no idea what I am saying.
All I want to do is get the presentation over with and sit back down where no one can see me.
That is how I felt during every presentation and speech before I conquered my fear of public speaking.
I always knew I wasn’t a good speaker and presenter – throughout middle school, high school, college, grad school. It just wasn’t my thing. I always struggled with it anytime I had to get in front of a room, and therefore, I hated it and always got nervous anytime a presentation project was mentioned in one of my classes. I had so many theories as to why I wasn’t good at it. For example: I thought I just wasn’t born with this natural ability to speak in front of a crowd like others were. I also thought maybe I would suddenly find this magical confidence at age 35. Why 35? I don’t know, but in my mid-20’s it seemed like an age where I hoped I would stop caring what others thought and be comfortable in my skin. No matter what I did, this fear and anxiety followed me from school projects to my professional life, and I finally had enough.
Where this fear all started
D.A.R.E. Graduation in 5th grade
The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program involved police officers going to schools and teaching students about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and violence. Their main message, at least in 1998, was to just say “NO!” to all these substances, especially marijuana – a gateway drug to all the other drugs out there. (I’ll save my commentary on that line of thinking for another time.)
After students completed the D.A.R.E. graduation curriculum, they would hold a Graduation Ceremony where students had to say “NO!” to Drugs in front of their parents and family members. I gave it everything I had when I auditioned for the emcee role for the Graduation Ceremony, and I got it! I was probably the only one who tried out for the role, but I was still so excited!
Then the day came for the event. Armed with my index cards in hand, I got up to the microphone in front of the audience, and I froze! I could feel all the eyes on me, the silence was killer, and my hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably. I got terrible, awful stage fright, and I was so upset! This is my first memory of feeling this debilitating stage fright and anxiousness.
I blame D.A.R.E. for all my public speaking woes — not really, but it feels good to have someone else to blame for this problem. Because of the D.A.R.E. program, I struggled for 15 years with addiction. I was addicted… to saying “NO!” to public speaking. That’s my terrible joke, and I am sticking to it.
Since that terrifying time up on stage in 5th grade, I STRUGGLED with public speaking. Middle school, high school, college, grad school – every time I had to give a presentation, I hated it. Even doing introductions on the first day of class had my heart feeling like it was going to pump out of my chest. “Hi, my name is Dayna LeBlanc, and I am taking this course…because it’s required.” Why was that so hard to say??
I dreaded Speech 101 in college, but I luckily made it through that class with an A because only a percentage of the grade was actually based on your speaking ability. My ability to write outlines, complete projects, and study for tests was just fine. My first speech in Speech 101 class was a 4-minute speech on something that has influenced you. I decided to talk about my experience as a senior in high school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit — a topic I could for sure find four minutes worth of material to talk about. Four minutes seemed like an eternity to me, but when I got up to speak, I ignored my whole outline, went off script (aka rambled), and I ended up talking for 11.5 minutes. There were no timing lights to tell me I was way over time, only the slowly dropping faces of my classmates, who were shocked and overwhelmed at this long, run-on sentence of a story. I got a B+ on the assignment, most likely because the instructor either felt bad for the subject matter of my speech or me as the speaker or both.
My Last Straw Moment
I thought this was a problem that would just plague me in school — maybe I just got nervous in front of my peers, despite the many pep talks I would give myself. “I don’t care what they think about me. I am going to get up and give this presentation and not care at all what they think,” I would tell myself before my presentations. Maybe I didn’t really care what they thought of me, but when I got up in front of them, I sure worried if they could tell how nervous I was. I thought when I got out into the real world that I would be fine — completely poised and professional. But this theory was quickly proven wrong.
Three months into getting my dream job as an Employee Wellness Coordinator at a well-known insurance company in South Carolina, I had to give a wellness presentation to our HR department. The presentation was about Stress Management, and I worked for many days on prepping the slides and my talking points. The day of the presentation, I ran into my manager beforehand, and he told me the HR manager for the group I was presenting to was a Distinguished Toastmaster. I had no idea what that was, but I was 100x more intimidated after that. The pre-speech “I’m not nervous at all” pep talk went out the window, and I became overwhelmed with nerves.
During the presentation, I committed all the big public speaking blunders:
I didn’t introduce myself or my co-worker who came with me, and we were both new to the company,
I talked about how nervous I was — how fitting for a stress management presentation,
And I went way over time – about 15-20 minutes over.
In hindsight, no one died and probably no one who attended that presentation, except for me, remembers how bad it was, but that was the last straw.
After the presentation, I went back to my office, ran to the bathroom and cried. I was so upset that this fear and anxiety of public speaking had followed me from school to my professional life. I was so tired of not getting my message across when presenting and feeling terrible about my performance afterwards. I decided something had to change. I had to get over this crippling fear, for the sake of my career and my well-being.
How I Conquered My Fear
I thought about the Distinguished Toastmaster title — whatever that meant — and I decided to look up Toastmasters. Fortunately, my company had a corporate Toastmasters club that met every Thursday during lunchtime, so I decided to check it out. I visited as a guest for a month or so, and then in October 2014, I made it official and joined as a member. My department paid for my membership, which was nice and supportive. I gave my Icebreaker speech a few weeks after joining. I talked about 2 things that influenced me throughout my life — no, not Hurricane Katrina this time, that was my 2nd speech topic — I talked about my love for volleyball and running. I had nine umms and uhhhs, relied fully on my notes, used lots of unnecessary hand gestures, had a red blotchy face and neck afterwards, and I had to rush my conclusion to stay within timeframe, but I got through it. And no crying in the bathroom afterwards at least!
I gave at least one speech a month, and in June 2015, I had given 10 speeches to reach my Competent Communicator designation. By that 10th speech, I had ZERO filler words, index cards that I didn’t end up using, purposeful movements, and a polished, effective conclusion. I had really pushed myself to get up there and give these speeches, and I found that I enjoyed it, even though I still struggled with it. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was a whole lot better than when I started.
My Public Speaking Journey
Six and a half years later, I am still in Toastmasters, and I am enjoying getting to share my stories and practice my content. I also really enjoy hearing others share their stories. In this time, I have accomplished so many goals I NEVER thought I would reach. I got my Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) designation, meaning I gave over 50 speeches and served in leadership roles, and it took me about five years to do that.
I also competed in contests, which is something I never thought I would do. When I watched the World Championship of Public Speaking Finals as a new Toastmaster, I would think, “I could never do that!” Although I haven’t reached the Finals (yet), I have competed in smaller level contests and won! I won 2nd place in the District 58 Evaluation Contest in 2017, which meant I had to give a 2-3-minute evaluation of a speech. The fact that I am competing and putting myself through these contests is such a win in itself, I don’t really care what place I get, although it is nice to win every now and then.
I also served in leadership roles within my clubs, and I have now served as Club President and other roles for three different clubs. When I was Club President for the first time in 2017-2018, I could see my newfound leadership skills and confidence slowly start to transfer from my Toastmaster meetings to my professional work. I started speaking up in meetings more and advocating for myself and my needs as an employee and also the needs of the department. I started to be viewed as a leader within my department, even though I didn’t have the manager or supervisor title.
It truly is life changing to not be afraid of public speaking or being put on the spot. I don’t second-guess myself (as much) anymore, and I am no longer surprised by this confident person (me!) speaking up and leading meetings. I have embraced this confidence level I never thought I would have, and I have allowed it to take me to new heights — all before the age of 35 too! Another one of my why-I’m-so-bad-at-public-speaking theories now disproven. I have now tried things I never thought I would be able to do, such as lead conference calls and now video calls effectively, give speeches at weddings and funerals, take improv classes, take sketch writing classes, and much more!
I wish I could say the nerves are completely gone and exterminated, but they still show up every now and again. I get upset when the nerves creep into my speeches, but I am much more in control now of my speaking abilities.
I have lots of dreams and goals — I am going to start giving paid presentations as a side business, and I want to continue getting better at improv and sketch writing. It’s absolutely mind boggling how the girl who got so nervous at any mention of a speech or having to speak in front of a crowd now wants to do it as a career. And the fun comedy outlets would never have happened without my firm public speaking foundation and confidence to throw myself into a challenge and try something new. The sky is the limit here, and the only person who can hold me back from achieving my goals is me.
Does public speaking make you nervous?
I often don’t believe it when someone else says it, but it’s so true in this instance – “If I can conquer my fear of public speaking, you can too!” It takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and make public speaking improvement a priority, but when you do, you will find more than just growth. You will find life-changing confidence that you never thought you would have in your wildest dreams. This new confidence can take you to new heights in your job, your business, and your life if you let it. And this newfound confidence can come at any age too!
There are many ways to overcome your fears of public speaking, and the most important thing is to find the way that works best for you. Toastmasters helped me a ton, but there is a certain level of commitment that takes a lot of time to see results, so it doesn’t work for everyone. If you need quick help overcoming your fears and improving your public speaking skills, check out the online course “Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction: The A-Ha! Method” by award-winning instructor Gabe Zichermann.
We will soon start offering community sessions for course participants to practice their presentations and receive feedback – both helping to overcome those fears and make their presentations and pitches more effective. You can take the course at your leisure and put the included resources to use when you need them the most. Sign up for this helpful professional speaking course today!