How to be confident at public speaking

The Star's Martin Smith during his speech
The Star's Martin Smith during his speech
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Great speakers change history.

We know that brilliant orators have inspired men and women to fight battles, to make peace amid great conflict and to overcome insurmountable odds.

But try telling that to the best man dripping sweat on to his crumpled and hopelessly inadequate speech notes in a toilet cubicle as the reception comes to a close.

Empires may turn and the fortunes of men be determined by the lofty words of their leaders but a duff speech can ruin the biggest day of anyone’s life.

I know all about this.

At the age of nineteen I was best man for a close friend who was somewhat hurriedly marrying a girl he used to call his ‘posh bird’ and her upwardly mobile and socially sensitive parents wanted a lavish do for their only daughter.

They spared no expense.

Men were in top hat and tails, women in co-ordinated shades of designer brilliance, the princess bride and her multitude of bridesmaids swathed in acres of lace and silk, rose petals were strewn by angelic page boys, Champagne had been flown in from France.

And the flowers?

Elton John had fewer blooms when he tied the knot with David.

What their money and aspirations didn’t account for was the clueless, gibbering buffoon their prospective son-in-law had chosen to be best man.

In front of a reception for 200 people I froze like a threepenny Jubbly, made a feeble apology and sat down having delivered nothing of my so-called speech.

Though the years subsequent presentation duties and other best man appointments have helped diminish the scars but the look of withering contempt in the bride’s mother’s eyes that day still haunts me.

That’s partly why I enrolled in the Public Speaking Academy’s one-day course.

The Sheffield-based academy is run by three men, Billal Jamil, Anthony Mercer and Lee Furness.

They believe that anyone can be turned into a successful public speaker if they are given the tools and the confidence.

Oh really...

There were 10 of us on the Saturday course with ages ranging from early twenties to late 60s, all fascinated by wanting to speak in public and all, for reasons of their own, not as good at it as they would like to be.

There’s an IT expert from Sheffield, a GP from Bradford, an academic from Manchester and a green activist whose nerves, even in front of a crowd this small were almost all-consuming - at least to start with.

Also on the course was 2006 European Championships bronze medal 800-meter runner Becky Lyne from Sheffield. Becky delivers talks to schools and other groups and although she seemed perfectly poised and capable wanted some tuition to improve her performance in front of an audience.

We all do an opening two-minute speech on a topic of our choosing then we go through various exercises, workshops and one-to-one sessions as we progress through the day.

There’s even an eyes-closed visualisation session where we’re invited to see ourselves as we would like to be in a future where our goals are met.

All I could see were the mother-in-law’s eyes.

But it works. The course helps build confidence and technique so that when you stand up to speak, the words on your notes don’t slide off the paper and on to the floor.

“What fascinates me are those who make the greatest transformation in the least time,” says a very vocal and confident Billal, also a stand-up comedian.

“We offer the 3Ps of Perfect Presentation:

“Passion: It may seem obvious, but without passion we simply lose interest and if you are not interested in your own message why should anyone else be?

“Pause: The most powerful tool in the public speaking tool box is silence. We all use it in conversation but it is a testimony to the power of pause in speech, both conversational and even more so in public speech.

“Personal Preparation: We all panic when we have to present – most worry about the content, some also worry about the presentation style/technique but very few focus on the self – the person who will be up there on stage. As a pro-speaker I will begin with personal preparation, whether it be my clothes, my voice, my energy, my mood…the list continues. In order to present well you need to feel right.”

So how good was the course? Very good.

It had a great spirit of togetherness among the group, helped with ideas for preparation, gave practice time and offered techniques for structuring speeches and working an audience.

By the end and after some one-to-one tuition we all repeated our two-minute speeches. Most were transformed from the stuttering doubt of early morning and were delivered with new poise, confidence and belief.

Even the piercing stare from those mother-in-law’s eyes had softened. At one point I could have sworn she actually winked.

Courses go from single session to three-day intensive, prices from £25 to £497. Information at: Public Speaking Academy

Memorable Speeches

Winston Churchill House of Commons 1940: “...we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

Nelson Mandela at his trial in Capetown 1964: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.”

David Brent, The Office, ‘Merger’ September 2002: “I hear they dropped an atomic bomb on Swindon and caused £15 worth of damage, anyway...”

Henry V at Agincourt 1415 (according to William Shakespeare): “Gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”

Women’s rights campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst, Connecticut 1913: “...they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”

Martin Luther King Washington DC 1963: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Presidential inauguration 1963: “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”

Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury ahead of the Spanish Armada’a assault 1588: “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king...”

Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup 1933: “If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff.”

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain 1938: “A British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is “peace for our time.”