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Speaker's Digest | Fundamentals of Public Speaking | EMS Glossary of Terms

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Speaker's Digest

March 2016
Volume 15, Number 3

In this issue:

This may be the fourth time in the history of Speaker’s Digest that we use the joke attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, who said that he read a survey showing that people identified public speaking as the #1 thing they fear—death is #2. “This means that, to the average person at a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” This month, we look at methods that scientists are using to study how the brain forms memories, possibly gaining insight into how people can overcome their fears, even glossophobia—the fear of speaking in public. Then, you’ll meet Eric Thomas, the Hip Hop Preacher, to see what we can learn from his style as a motivational speaker.

Understanding and Changing Memories

The fear of public speaking has been written about in many places, including here on these (electronic) pages. The EMS team often gets the opportunity to work with people who find it extraordinarily difficult to get up in front of a group and speak. Is this a real fear, based on an actual memory of a horrible experience early in their life? Is it a fear based on other memories in life? Or is it just an extremely anxious response triggered by their brain?

Last month, we watched an episode on PBS’ Nova series called “Memory Hackers” that looked at different ways scientists are studying human memories, working to identify how our brains form memories, store them over time, and also how those memories might change over time.

We were particularly interested in a subject called reconsolidation, which claims that memory is not like a page of a book that gets closed and then stored again on a bookshelf, but more like a computer file that has to be re-saved every time it is recalled. This means that you might recall a memory, then theoretically add to that memory—or even change it—before re-saving it. Dr. Karim Nader of McGill University showed how laboratory rats that learned to fear a particular sound could re-learn a different response—to that same sound that had caused them to panic—with the help of a drug that blocked pathways used to re-store the memory in the brain.

It got even more interesting when we saw how another doctor, Merel Kindt, worked with people to help them overcome specific fears by using the drug Propranolol, a beta blocker often used to manage blood pressure. In the documentary, we saw her treat a man who was able to overcome his overwhelming fear of spiders relatively quickly, first recalling the memory by being brought up close to a tarantula, then taking the drug, and finally—after a period of time—returning to the tarantula, which he now was able to touch, pet and hold. He had successfully blocked the restoration of the old memory and formed a new one from his recent experience, one in which he was not afraid of spiders. Kindt says that she had similar findings with dozens of patients she has studied using the same approach, even one year later, and explained that they are now using the technique to help people overcome drug addiction and PTSD.

So if you’re one of those who would rather be in the box than delivering the eulogy, there are reasons to be hopeful. A quick search shows that people do in fact take this same beta blocker, Propranolol, to help them overcome the anxiety and fear of speaking in front of an audience. People who have tried it report that they still feel the nervousness, but that their physical reactions are minimized.

We’re not telling our clients and readers to go out and start taking a new drug, but rather that there are multiple ways in which people are able to deal with their fears of presenting. Many people we work with simply find comfort in realizing that they can just go up and trust their instincts, become familiar with a few Fundamentals, and ultimately trust themselves to BE themselves in from of a crowd. Others go for personal motivation—“I’m going to make that guy smile” or “No one cares how I feel!” Many of our clients have found that coaching, repetition, meditation and other techniques help them feel less nervous—and more confident—at the podium.

But if nothing is working for you, it may be helpful to know that scientists are out there constantly learning more about how our brains help us to manage our anxiety, and may be coming up with new treatments that will help ease your fears of speaking in public.

Here’s a link to the hour-long Nova program on YouTube. The part of the program we discuss begins around 22:30 and continues for 15 minutes.



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Lessons from the Hip Hop Preacher

We weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to write about this particular video, but we knew we wanted you to see it. Dr. Eric Thomas is a motivational speaker, who in this clip was speaking to a group of high school students at St. Louis’ Vashon High School, an inner-city school where we are told that 70% of the students read at a level below their expected grade-level abilities.

Thomas, who tells the students that he was homeless as a youth in Detroit, was a high school dropout who went back to school and ultimately earned a Ph.D. Also known as ET: the Hip Hop Preacher, Thomas has a large YouTube following, more than 220,000 Facebook “Likes,” and speaks to schools, community groups and even professional sports teams to help people find their passion and maximize their potential.

In this clip, he’s speaking to hundreds of students from the stage of the high school auditorium. At one point in the presentation, he gets angry about how the students are responding to him, and his frustration comes through. At this point, he adopts a tone that wins over their complete attention.

Our question: what exactly does he do to hold their attention, why does it work, and what can you learn from him that might help you be more effective as a speaker? Here are a few reasons we were attracted to Dr. Thomas’ style:

Shows Authentic Emotion. We don’t often talk about the power of emotion, mostly because most people “won’t go there” in a corporate presentation. But in the right situation, expressing an authentic emotion—such as frustration, excitement, or sadness—can be hugely effective. When Thomas begins, we hear him using a lot of non-words, specifically “like,” and he seems to have trouble connecting. When his frustration comes out, he becomes energized, loud, and focused. We say it all the time—energy is a great mask. When you crank up your vocal variety, increase the size of your gestures, and use dramatic pauses, minor distractions don’t matter. Your listeners will be too caught up in your message to notice.

Remains Audience-focused. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right tone appropriate for a certain audience. That’s why it’s vital for a presenter to pay attention to signals from your listeners, and to be ready to make adjustments as the situation dictates. In this case, he let his emotions guide his message and the tone in which he delivered it. You can tell that he has found the right tone for this audience by how they respond to him.

Acknowledge the Reality. Thomas shows us images of the neighborhood surrounding Vashon High School. So when he speaks, he makes it clear that he understands he’s in an under-performing school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood that isn’t likely to respond to a typical “be all that you can be” message. He knows the challenges faced by these students, having faced many of those same challenges himself while growing up in Detroit. By letting these students know that he understands their reality, he gains credibility and earns their attention.

Paints a Picture. At first glance, he might seem like a man who is ranting and raving, but we see an artist who is painting a picture of what success can look like for these students. He uses his own story as an example and—despite his frustration—shares a positive message, telling these students that they are smart, they are capable, that they have people who care for them, and that they are survivors, all while letting them know they need to seize the opportunities afforded to them by education. He earns their applause at this point, but only because he has already acknowledged their reality first.

We’ll be curious to know what you think after you take a few minutes to watch Dr. Thomas speak.

Thanks again for reading. We hope you enjoy the upcoming NCAA Final Four, and are looking forward to the start of the BASEBALL season—Let’s Go You White Sox! Pass this on, and we’ll see you next month.



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