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Public Speaking: Dispelling the Top Ten Myths

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Hitesh Sharma
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Public Speaking: Dispelling the Top Ten Myths - August 14th, 2008

There are many misconceptions about how to speak effectively to an audience. People look for formulas and rules to follow with the belief that public speaking is a mechanical process. It''s not; it''s a human process. Other people think they could never become a public speaker-they just have no talent. While exceptional speakers usually do have a real talent for it, this doesn''t mean that we all can''t give a speech that will engage our audience and be a personally rewarding experience at the same time.
The more you hold onto old-and often misguided-beliefs about public speaking, the less effective you''ll be on the platform. You must go in with an open mind and, in some cases, work to change your thinking about giving presentations.

With that in mind, here are ten of the most common myths about public speaking-along with some food for thought to help you dispel the myths in your own mind.

1. I''m not a public speaker. Wrong. Everyone is a public speaker. Every time you speak at a staff meeting, you''re speaking in public. Anytime you stand up and introduce yourself at an association meeting, you''re giving a presentation. The waiter who recites the specials of the day is presenting. When you complain to the customer service department or go on a job interview, you''re presenting yourself.

Reality: We all speak in public. Public speaking goes far beyond standing on a stage in front of 100 people. We''re presenting ourselves all the time. In fact, life is one big presentation.

2. Don''t speak with your hands. This myth surfaces in many of my presentation skills seminars. One person confided that her father had told her never to talk with her hands. His experience was that people would think she was an immigrant. Think about yourself in a one-to-one conversation. We all talk with our hands. We''re just not conscious of it.

Reality: Expressive, dynamic speakers use their hands. Speakers who don''t use any hand movement appear stiff. So let your hands speak for themselves!

3. Look over the heads of the audience. Another variation on this myth is to stare at a spot on the wall instead of looking at your audience. You may have heard that these strategies will reduce your nervousness when presenting. But either technique will only increase your nervousness. You''ll quickly begin to feel alienated from your audience. Would you meet a person face to face and stare over that person''s head?

Reality: Look directly at key individuals. We connect with each other through our eyes. Effective speakers look at a few people, one at a time. This creates a relationship, and it''s less scary giving your message to each person than to a large crowd.

4. Memorize your speech. Memorizing your presentation word for word increases your nervousness. What happens if you blank out and forget a word? You''ll have to quickly skim your text or tolerate long, embarrassing silences.

Reality: It''s more effective to memorize concepts, not words. If you forget a word, you can make your point another way or go on to a new point. Your audience will not know the difference. When possible, avoid using manuscripts. Notes and outlines will better help you to stay on track.

5 Stand in one place. While you don''t want to pace all over the platform, you don''t have to make yourself a human totem pole. Some speakers think that they have to retreat behind a lectern, like a turtle hides inside its shell.

Reality: Purposeful movement can be dynamic. Watch some of the top motivational speakers, like Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Les Brown. They work the crowd. They move across the platform. By doing this, you''ll increase the energy in the audience.

6. Always use a lectern. Most people love the lectern because they can use it as a crutch and hide behind it.

Reality: There''s only one reason to use a lectern: to hold your notes. Use a lectern only when you have to speak from a manuscript. Otherwise, you risk giving a presentation that will be perceived as formal and stiff.

7. Cover all your points in your speech. Most speakers buy into this myth. They have so much to give the audience that they cram all the information into the allotted time. The result: information overload for the audience members.

Reality: Consider the time frame and modify your talk. Give three major points instead of six. Condense your examples. Tell shorter stories. People will be more likely to remember your speech if you take this approach instead of trying to squeeze too much into too short a window of time.

8. Start with a joke. While humor is important, it''s different from comedy. If you''re not a ''natural'' at telling jokes, you might alienate the audience. Even if you''re good at telling jokes, you almost always risk offending or perhaps confusing someone.

Reality: Don''t do it. You don''t have to be funny to be effective. Use humor or irony instead of telling a joke. Or, simply start with a story or a quote. Throw away the jokes. More often than not, they backfire.

9. Shut the lights off to show slides. Many presenters blacken the room when presenting with overheads or slides. They believe this will increase visual clarity and command attention.

Reality: In total darkness, your audience members will fall asleep. And they''ll be startled when you turn the lights back on. Use a dimmer instead. Give people enough light to see the slides, and be sure you can see their faces as well.

10. You shouldn''t be nervous. Says who? Most people come to presentation skills seminars because they want to eliminate nervousness.

Reality: you can control and manage your nervousness, but you can''t eliminate it. For most of us, the fear of making presentations never really goes away. Even the top speakers get nervous. But some nervous energy is good for you. It keeps you dynamic. The goal is to channel your nervous energy into a positive performance.

Hitesh Sharma
(I am sharing what is shared with me)
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