I’ve got a booking to do two days of storytelling workshops down in Southampton later this March. Day one will look at stories, where to find them, how to learn them and day two will be a performance and public speaking skills workshop. In a similar way to writing Folk Tales Corner each month, it will make me examine what I do, try to make sense of it and find out if it makes sense to anybody else.
Standing up in front of a room full of people and talking was, famously, America’s number one fear. It has now slipped down to number 5, handing over the top spot to Walking Alone At Night. In the UK stats for 2015 it went the other way, pushing past Spiders and Deep Water to claim it’s gold medal at the top of the podium.
Personally I am baffled. We all talk to each other all the time, we speak to shopkeepers and ice cream sellers, bank staff and bus drivers, colleagues and customers. We waffle on country walks, bang on in belfries, rabbit away in railway carriages and pontificate on cold station platforms or in nice warm pubs. How can something so intrinsically human be our most common fear?
I suspect it’s not so much the talking that makes people fearful as the opportunity to be seen making a mistake. Despite the absolute knowledge that not one of us is perfect, we all tremble at the thought of demonstrating exactly how far from that unreachable ideal we are to the world.
So what are my professional tips should you be put on the spot? Well the obvious way to not get caught out is to know your stuff. Thankfully it is fairly rare for anyone other than actors or comedians to be expected to stand up and improvise on a topic they know nothing about. The chances are that when you are called on to wax lyrical to the masses, that it will be because you are the person out of the available people who knows the most about what you have been asked to enlarge upon.
A lot of people will spend their preparation time writing out every word they are going to say, getting each syllable just so. This results in them having to read aloud or learn the whole thing word for word. Neither of these are things most of us do on a daily basis and are therefore things we are not terribly good at. The first results in a lack of animation and eye contact and the second is just making life hard for yourself. Don’t give yourself the trouble of a script.
We are all used to assembling sentences on the hoof, we do it naturally everyday. If you know your stuff there is a very good chance that you have already put it in to words on many occasions, answering co-workers questions, explaining your days work to a partner or friend. Rely on your ability to use your native language and your knowledge of your material. Your head will be up, your enthusiasm will show, you can gauge your audiences responses, adapt appropriately and keep them engaged.
Tip number two is stop caring so much. For most people the worst performance problems stem from nerves, relax and give yourself a break. A bit of revision, a crib sheet of the most important names and numbers and you will be fine.