I was complimented last week after my Africa Day speech at the UK Parliament. I had been briefing a group of UK parliamentarians, African Ambassadors and members of the general public about the efforts of African Diaspora organisations to promote the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals among African communities.
Although I was moved and pleased when several attendees congratulated me on the eloquence, passion and confidence with which I had delivered my speech, I felt like a one-eyed woman being crowned queen in the land of the blind. For I know real masters of rhetoric and public speaking beside whom I am, and will always be, a very poor amateur. The chances are, if you have ever spent some time in an African village, you know them too. They are the villagers who speak at the village assemblies, which often take place in an area called discussion tree.
There are no microphones, lecterns or PowerPoint facilities at the discussion tree. You can only rely on yourself –your voice, your body and your brains- to speak loudly, eloquently and confidently enough to convince people. Furthermore, there are no podiums or tables to separate you from the audience. More often than not, you find yourself eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath with individuals who vehemently disagree with you, and will let you know how they feel in no uncertain terms by shouting, gesticulating and booing.
Compared to the daunting task of speaking at the discussion tree, addressing people at a Western parliament, university or any similar setting is child’s play. This does not mean that the villagers who speak at the discussion tree are superhuman. They too are as likely to be grappling with shyness and fear of public speaking as many of us. But they have developed and adopted effective techniques to overcome these challenges.
Most of us who have received a Western-style education tend to view African villagers as ignorant and uneducated. I too did so in my teens and early twenties. But I have had the good fortune to rethink this attitude many years ago. I was, for a long time, crippled by fear of public speaking due to my severe natural shyness and self-consciousness about my foreign accent when addressing people in Spanish and English. I know for a fact that I would never have conquered this fear had I not spent a lot of time observing speakers at discussion trees in many African villages, chatting to them, listening to them and, above all, learning from them.
Based on everything I have learned from a wide variety of speakers at African discussion trees, I can sum up the art of public speaking as a combination of, on the one hand, providing yourself with the mental and practical tools you need to improve your skills, and on the other hand, constant practice that will enable you to grow in confidence as you increasingly perform better.
More concretely, here are the 6 main lessons I learned from the discussion tree speakers:
- Accept and embrace your shyness and fear of public speaking
Acknowledging your nervousness and speech anxiety will not deter you. On the contrary, it will make you realise that you care about the issue(s) you intend to talk about. It will also help you brace yourself to confront your shyness and fear to the best of your ability. You will, therefore, develop the mental strength, courage and determination necessary to overcome these challenges.
- Create and adopt personalised techniques to conquer your shyness and fear
Once you have acknowledged your shyness and fear of public speaking, you should strive to find simple mental tricks to get rid of them. Be positive, the aim is not to beat yourself up for having weaknesses –as humans, we all have shortcomings and limitations-; your goal is to mentally strengthen yourself, so that you can perform well.
Give free rein to your imagination and be as creative as possible. For instance, if you have a favourite superhero or superheroine, imagine and cast yourself as that character. This does not mean that you have to literally don a catwoman suit like Serena Williams. You just have to visualise yourself as that character confronting shyness and speech anxiety, and ultimately prevailing. Another trick you may use when preparing and rehearsing your speech is to imagine that the people you are speaking to are your favourite flowers, animals, or anything that soothes you.
- Reframe your relationship with the audience in a positive light
The audience is usually perceived in a negative and confrontational way. We often assume that people are intent on judging, criticising and mocking us. This increases our anxiety and fear of public speaking. Try instead to regard the audience as a friendly and admiring group of people who think so highly of what you have to say that they are prepared to drop everything else in their lives to come and listen to you. If you enter a parliament, an auditorium or any conference room with that mindset, you will not be intimidated, and will exude confidence. You may also try to view members of the audience as potential allies who care about the same things as you, and are ready to collaborate with you to achieve common goals. As one villager told me, “I do not fear speaking to people at the discussion tree since I know that they are there because, like me, they want the best for the village.”
- Practice, practice, practice
When it comes to public speaking, you are always in an advantageous position because you have the opportunity to prepare your speech in advance. You can choose to dedicate a lot of time drafting, improving and rehearsing it, and preparing yourself mentally. It’s your show, you want it to be dazzling and wonderful, so do not hesitate to practise as much as you feel necessary. With practice come outstanding results and confidence. Of course, there will be occasions when you may have to stand in for another speaker at the last minute. But these are commitments you should only make once you are free from shyness and speech anxiety.
- Include your speech in your relaxation routine
No matter how busy you are, you should strive to frequently set aside some time for relaxation. It helps you improve your mental and emotional wellbeing, fills you with positive energy, increases your productivity, and enables you to develop the resilience and sense of humour you need to withstand life challenges and stresses –including, of course, the stress caused by fear of public speaking.
Whether your relaxation routine involves dancing, singing, walking in the countryside, meditation, breathing exercises or physical activity, try to include your public speaking preparation in this routine. Doing so will help your mind dissociate public speaking from anxiety and stress. For instance, I often practise important speeches in the countryside because trees, plants and birdsongs make me feel relaxed and reinvigorated. Furthermore, before every public speaking engagement, I have a natural-scented bath.
- No passion no speech
Try to adopt a “no passion no speech” rule. That is, do not give a public speech on an issue unless you care passionately about it. Public speaking is not your destination point, only the means you use to get there. No matter how many public speaking tricks and techniques you acquire or develop, no matter how much time you dedicate to the preparation of your speech, if you are not committed to using that speech to promote the realisation of a goal you passionately want to fulfil, you will not convince people, and you will certainly not mask your shyness and anxiety.
When you decide to give a public speech because you are driven by conviction and the passionate desire to promote a greater cause, you can easily block your shyness and speech anxiety. More importantly, you are able to transcend the rough and tumble of public speaking –whether it is an angry attendee shouting abuses at you, a patronising chairperson sniggering at your foreign accent, or you forgetting a central point you desperately wanted to make. For you are and will always be safe in the knowledge that regardless of how disastrous it could prove to be, the outcome of a speech would never be enough to deter you from pursuing your goal. After all, your goal is not to deliver a successful speech, but to use a successful speech to make a positive and lasting contribution to your cause in particular, and to humanity in general.
By Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell