I like quiet spaces. And solitude. And anonymity. Perhaps, as you’re reading this piece on writing.ie, you can identify with that. Writers are, generally, a quiet bunch. Watchers rather than engagers, contemplators rather than doers. That’s the general perception of our lot, and it’s often spot on. So why would a writer – who, when she isn’t inhabiting an alternate world via her laptop screen, is cloistered in a studio somewhere hiding her face behind a microphone – be able to give tips on public speaking?
Once, when I was slightly more masochistic than I am now, I was an actress. I put myself through drama school. On the first day, we sat in a circle on hard, wobbly brown chairs, and the head teacher sat in the middle of us on a plush swiveling one, and spun around like the worst wheel of fortune, where the winning prize was talking about yourself in front of an intimate group of complete strangers. One by one, we each opened our mouths and told sixteen pairs of narrowed eyes who we were and where on earth we came from and why on earth we came to this pit in the first place. I counted off each head the swivel chair stopped at until my own as though I was counting my final steps before I descended into hell. Parts of my anatomy sweated that I didn’t know even had sweat glands. I was a wreck. And it only got worse from there. Each day, each introduction, each monologue and improvisation and speech, was torture. But I wanted to tell stories, so I put myself through it. I went through the fire. And, eventually, after two years, I came out the other side. I might have had third degree burns and singed hair and multiple skin grafts, but, nevertheless, I made it.
I was battle hardened, and hit the audition circuit with a grim and sharpened chin. I even managed to win a few skirmishes, and get on the telly once or twice. Each time I put myself into the position of having to perform in front of a group of people, it got easier. Having another persona through which to do it helped. But there were times around that when there was no character or script to hide behind, when it was just you as you were, talking about you as you were, because you were being asked.
If you’re an author, and you’ve managed to wade through the murky waters of the publishing process and come out still breathing the other side, you will be rewarded, most likely, with having to stand up in front of people and talk about yourself and the thing you wrote. That may seem to you quite far removed from your role as the anonymous storyteller, and you might shrink from having to do it with every fibre of your being, but it has to be done. You want to be able to hide out in front of that screen for as long as you can and still pay the water rates? Then you’ve got to promote yourself, and yes, that means talking in front of groups of people.
Firstly, you’ll just have to acknowledge that you’re going to be shit scared. Once that’s over with, you can tackle the fear with practical techniques. Each exercise helps you chip away at that concrete exterior of petrification until you reveal yourself again.
Now, stand up straight. Release your shoulders; let your arms go heavy and limp. Elevate the crown of your head, as though an invisible marionette string is running along your spine from the tail bone through the crown and into the clouds. Try it now, and notice the subtle internal brightening you feel. Not only does standing up straight and strong alter your mood and lift your confidence level, it does wonders for the voice as well. The voice is powered by breath, and in order to get as much breath in, your spine needs to be in its neutral position so your diaphragm can expand in every direction, and fill up to the brim. So, now that you’re standing up straight, take five deep breaths. Let your stomach expand first, and the chest and collarbones will follow. Allow a slight, natural pause between each full inhale and exhale. Contract the stomach as you breathe out. Make sure all the air is expelled before you breathe back in, and enjoy the calm this deliberation brings.
After your fifth breath, take another five, this time humming on the exhale, for as long as your breath will allow. Hum as loudly as you can. If you’re in a cubicle in a public lavatory, expect your shoes to be heavily judged. (It’s fine; you can always hide out until it’s empty to make your escape.) Humming builds warmth around the vocal chords, which will increase their flexibility and help you to be less of a stuttering mess. Take another five breaths, and this time prepare to hum as before, but let your jaw fall open, as though you’ve a dentist poking around in your throat. Again, hold the ‘aaaaaah’ for as long as your breath will allow.
Now, get your speech. Read it out loud facing a mirror, and force yourself to confront your reflection after the end of each thought. Smile. Seriously. The endorphins released by the mechanical act of smiling will balance out the dread of what’s to come. If you’re still finding yourself a bit slack jawed and rubber mouthed, take your two fingers and place them between your teeth. Some people prefer to use a wine cork; just like the one in your pocket. Now say your speech to yourself in the mirror, enunciating each word around the impediment as clearly as possible. This forces the muscles in your mouth and jaw to work harder, so when you return to it, mouth only, it flows much more easily.
Now get out there and do it. Console yourself with the knowledge that it will all be over soon, and before you know you’ll have that wine cork back in your gob where it belongs.(c) Remie Purtill-Clarke