Facing the Firing Squad: Speaking Before a Group

Doug Robinson

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Jerry Seinfeld once said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” 

If you make your living as a salesperson, you will eventually reach the place where you need to speak before groups, either in boardrooms or ballrooms. So let’s wake up and smell the coffee in preparation for that fateful day. 

As a kid in grade school I became aware that the Optimist Club annually sponsored a nationwide oratorical contest. As a fourth-grader with ignorance trumping fear, I agreed to enter the competition. I began my oratory preparation with zero concern over winning or losing, but was simply complying with my parents admonition that, “this would really be a good experience for you, and would make us very proud.”

I rehearsed my speech in front of them so many times that, as cockroaches scatter when the lights are flipped on, they began to flee when I entered the living room with speech in hand. When the evening of the competition finally arrived, I donned my Sunday best and, with my folks, proceeded to the restaurant for the main event. The Optimists provided a great dinner that night, but I was way too nervous to enjoy the spread. Within about twenty minutes the waitresses began to scurry around clearing away the aftermath of the meal, and then the contestants (prisoners) were immediately summoned to the head table. 

Upon sizing up the competition, it was obvious I was the runt of the litter. The elder statesman that year was a 7th grader, but he looked like a college frat boy from where I sat. Finally the executioner called my name, and I slowly ambled to the lectern. As I looked up all I saw was wall-to-wall grandpas dressed in suits that appeared to come from the same J.C. Penney store. Although I had rehearsed relentlessly, I was ill-prepared for the steely gaze of that many pairs of eyes assembled in one room.

I glanced over toward my parents, who smiled encouragingly, but as my eyes scanned the room I became petrified and unable to utter a word for what seemed like an hour. Then, from somewhere in the crowd, I was nudged by an encouraging voice that echoed, “Young man, you can do it.”

As they say, the rest is history. The next few minutes were a blur to me, but the judges said I bested the other three boys, and they pronounced me the winner, catapulting me to the district competition. Although I didn’t win that event, I earned my public speaking spurs and never again had stage fright in front of a group. To this day, I am eternally grateful for that anonymous voice that convinced me I could do it.  

When you find yourself on the hot seat in front of a buying committee, a group of C-level executives, or a trade association gathering; consider the following suggestions to help take the edge off: 

Beware of your body language, because your nonverbal responses project and portray over 50% of your communicating. Like your momma always chided, stand up straight but without appearing stiff, and relax as much as possible, minus the distracting movement of shifting you weight from hip to hip.

Come out from behind the podium, because eliminating barriers improves the connection between speakers and audiences. Avoid standing frozen in one spot, but don’t pace back and forth. 

Gesture as you would during an animated conversation, but don’t let it get out of hand; no pun intended. If you act like CNBC’s Jim Cramer, who portrays gesturing on steroids, your audience will certainly be distracted and they will miss part of your message.

Avoid handcuffing your arms behind your back or keeping your hands in your pockets, as these stances will sidetrack the focus of your audience. Continually crossing your arms is also as much of a no-no as nervously wringing your hands, so be sure to leave those mannerisms at home.

Eye contact establishes and builds rapport, but try not to look at any one person for more than three seconds, since extended eye contact comes across to most folks as a bit creepy. 

Consider recording and listening to your voice beforehand, to insure that any anxiety you may have doesn’t produce a monotone sound. The more you relax the less your airflow will be restricted.

The average speaking tempo is about 125 words per minute, but the more nervous you become, the faster you will talk. When this occurs, diction and articulation deteriorate; so consider inserting occasional two-second pauses, which will function like a cruise control. Additionally this helps you emphasize specific points and increases audience attention. 

Good speakers don’t just wake one morning as good speakers. They spend time and effort developing and practicing their skills. In the beginning it’s difficult and frustrating, but once you conquer this fear, you’ve accomplished something most people will never master! I’m glad I confronted and beat back my firing squad in the 4th grade. 

If your sales and/or service folks need to improve their communication skills, I’d love to begin coaching your team. Contact me here and let’s talk about it.