‘My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words.’ - M. K. Gandhi
Great personalities the likes of M.K. Gandhi who shivered at his first public speech in London addressing vegetarianism, could only gather enough courage to speak a sentence and bail out. Yet, later on, he was not only heard by the whole world but people still have an ear for whatever he said.
It is not as sign of weakness to get nervous before speaking on stage for debates, elocutions or as a matter of fact for any other reason too. But what is the best way to keep them under control? Stick on to some of these rules of engagement from vocabulary to handling difficult debate rebuttal situations - and your nerves will obey you. Decide whether an icebreaker is appropriate. Ice-breakers work for some and not for others. Unless you are extremely charming, it is important that any attention-grabbing anecdotes are relevant to the talk. Any offbeat attention-getters need to vary if there is a chance of audience overlap.
Hold on to the back of a chair or podium: This can work in opening minutes if your hands shake. Then as you warm up you let go and even move away, out closer to your audience. Nerves are what give you energy by getting the adrenalin flowing. Without them you will not do good. Before you start, take a sip of water, look around the audience, smile and say thank you, then share a very short anecdotal story – these will buy you time to settle your nerves.
Nerves are fine, but work out a presentation strategy: Locate four to six people at different strategic places in the audience: top-left, top-right, middle, etc, and move between them for the first few minutes, giving them eye contact. Have your first few paragraphs really well rehearsed.
Choose simple vocabulary, skip the pomp: Some people are afraid that 'easy to understand' translates into 'too simple' and therefore not unique or worthy enough. But the best debates are clear, concise, reasonably jargon free and tell the story of your topic. Avoid delivering your thoughts as a verbal version of an academic paper. Use international English and cultural references that everyone can relate to. Do not use unusual phrases, never use a longer word when a shorter one has the same meaning, never use a scientific phrase if an everyday example exists, and never include unnecessary words if the meaning of a shorter sentence remains the same. Clarity is vital, as even the most thorough research becomes meaningless if the results cannot be understood.
Move beyond using scripts: They can be useful in building confidence and developmental for the early scholar, but as that confidence grows so must the technique. If you do use a script, print it in a larger typeface, double spaced, making it easy for you to return your eye to the podium. Highlight points of emphasis so you can see them coming.
If you are travelling, read up on the area. SWOT up on geography, politics, culture, and basic facts. When you arrive, read the local press and watch some local TV. Ideally it is also worth meeting up with the organizers and ask them questions and tips – this is really important if there is a Q&A or rebuttal round.
Improve by practicing. Make use of the free tutorials, websites and tips on the web on communicating, and do dry runs or warm-up gigs with your fellow mates in class to practice. It is also good to have an academic mentor who is willing to give you good and hard feedback when you need it. Peer mentoring can be helpful, but if there is no provision for this at your institution you can always do it informally.
Take notes from other presenters: Think about what you liked and what could have been improved. Play to your strengths. Aim to open people's mind to something new. Think to yourself, why should my audience want to listen? Never underestimate the audience. This will ensure you are kept on your toes and put the work in to deliver the perfect debate or elocution.