Conquering Podium Paralysis

Feel anxious or even panicky when you get up to face an audience? Or do you sense that your presentation lacks the pizzazz that would help drive your point home? You’re far from alone, and it’s no reflection on your self-confidence or professional ability.

Since patient care is typically one-on-one, most doctors have given talks as often as the Dalai Lama has given keg parties. So, when it’s time to present, you may well dread the prospect. But if you avoid public speaking you may miss opportunities to expand your practice, get the funding or concessions you want, or further your career.

Public speaking skills can be learned. A successful talk entails preparing and organizing the material (including visuals aids), and overcoming anxiety when delivering it.

Get ready, get set. Start by identifying the purpose for your speech. Home in on the one or two concepts you want your audience to remember. Define for yourself the specific action you want the audience to ultimately take, for example, “After this presentation, I want listeners to make an appointment at our practice for a blood pressure screening,” or “I want my partners to agree to expand into ancillary services.” Let your goal guide your talking points.

Divide your talk into a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning grabs attention with a question, anecdote, or challenging statement. The middle builds your argument or provides necessary information; the end should summarize your points, include a call to action, or both.

One helpful tip: create an outline and list your supporting facts and logic. If you organize your talk into a timeline or logical progression, the speech will flow better and you’re less likely to go blank during your delivery.

Consider using visual aids, such as a PowerPoint presentation (see box above). Be sure they support your message, and choose simple, strong graphics that can be instantly understood.

Time to deliver. Who wouldn’t love to captivate an audience like Billy Graham or Anthony Robbins do? Few are so skilled, but more important, you don’t have to be that theatrical to make your speech effective.

You should, however, get rid of filler words that make you sound ill at ease, the most common being “ya know?” or “um.” Other top offenders: mannerisms like repeatedly smoothing your hair, shifting your weight back and forth, and tapping your foot.

To catch bad speaking habits, practice your talk before family or friends. Get their feedback, or even better, videotape yourself–although orating to family members is fairly low-stress and may not trigger your nervous mannerisms.

Consider a public speaking workshop, where you get instruction, practice, and feedback. Types of workshops vary, from a course at your town’s adult school to a $5,000-a-half-day training session taught by Jon Kraushar, whose clients have included Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani (www.jonkraushar.net).

An excellent, reasonably priced source of instruction and feedback is your local chapter of Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org), an organization that helps people improve their public speaking. Members practice skills such as vocal variety, gesturing, persuading, inspiring, and using visual aids. Annual dues are $54, plus a onetime fee of $20 for new members.

Once you’ve learned the appropriate skills, practice, practice, practice! Few people can get up and wing it. Read through your talk a couple of times, then condense it into short, bulleted notes on file cards and rehearse with those. You’ll grow more comfortable with each run-through, and you may come up with ways to add some flair. Try to let your personality shine through. And when you give the speech, don’t race through as if you can’t wait to finish it. Pretend you’re enjoying yourself, and your audience will feel the same.

Don’t try to memorize your entire talk–When it’s time to present, feel free to bring a double-spaced copy of the speech, in case you need to refer to it.

Vanquish the butterflies. First, adjust your attitude. You’re probably used to excelling, and have set a high performance standard for yourself as a speaker. Give yourself a break; you’re a doctor, not a trained motivational speaker, and you don’t have to perform like one.

Focus on the value your message brings, and how your information can help your audience, rather than making it all about you and how you appear. If your audience remembers your key messages or takes the action you’re recommending, your speech has been successful.

The old advice for cutting your audience down to size is to picture them in their underwear; with today’s scanty outfits, it’s hardly an effective technique. One mental aid is to think of each audience member as a person with his or her own insecurities and quirks. If you met each one individually, you’d probably not care what anyone thought of you, so why care collectively?

Beyond changing your attitude, learn to use techniques like deep breathing or muscle relaxation. They can go a long way toward calming you down, and can help turn your speaking session into an occasion that you (almost) enjoy.

Pump up your PowerPoints

Visual aids can strengthen the impact and clarity of your information. Here’s how to use Microsoft’s PowerPoint program more effectively:

1. Use the same background for all slides. Keep the type and color consistent.

2. For bulleted points, use phrases, not full sentences. No paragraphs.

3. Limit slides to 15 words each. You want your audience to listen to you, not passively read slides.

4. Keep your graphics simple. Don’t use clip art to decorate; use it only when it illustrates your point.

5. Check your spelling manually. Spell-check can foil you with words that have similar or identical spellings but different meanings.

6. Keep the number of slides to a minimum. Don’t make too many simply because they’re easy to crank out.

7. Don’t talk to the slide; look at the audience frequently.

8. Make sure the equipment’s working and you know how to use it prior to your presentation.

Your Resource Center

You can get more advice and inspiration to jump-start your plan from these resources:

The Quick & Easy Way to Effective Speaking, by Dale Carnegie (Pocket Books, 1990)

The Complete Guide to Public Speaking, by Jeff Davidson (John Wiley & Sons, 2003)

In The SpotLight, Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing, by Janet Esposito (In The Spotlight, 2000)

www.toastmasters.org This website contains numerous articles that can help you improve your public speaking.

Leslie Kane, MACC