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Polished at the Podium

Forget imagining your audience in their underwear. Shawn Whalen, director of SF State's Speech and Debate Team, said there really are no tricks to getting over the fear of speaking in public. "The only way to get comfortable in front of an audience is repetition -- getting up there and speaking again and again -- and being fully confident in the content of your speech," said the Communication Studies lecturer.

A well-stocked trophy case in the Humanities building attests to the historic success of the SF State Speech and Debate team. Under Whalen's guidance for the past ten years, the team has consistently ranked in the top twenty in national forensics competitions. Here are Whalen's dos and don'ts for getting your next speech off to a great start:

Public Speaking Tips
Five speech-starting dos

1. Use physical activity to get the audience's attention. A theme-related physical activity can also help the audience generate a visual image of your topic. Often you can draw on that later in the speech. A speech on the importance of exercise could open with jumping jacks. A speech on child abuse could open with the speaker striking an object with great force.

2. Make a startling statement or present a startling statistic. "Government officials in the United States have murdered 23 American citizens" might open a speech opposing the death penalty. This type of opening can create a feeling of suspense and anticipation of the statement's justification.

3. Tell a theme-related joke. Humor isn't for everyone and it's a little risky if you aren't familiar with the audience, but nothing wins audiences over as much as a good laugh.

4. Provide an apt quotation. In addition to framing the theme of the speech, you can generate credibility by demonstrating that you are familiar enough with the topic literature to have found such an appropriate quotation.

5. Relate a relevant story. Most people give only a few formal public speeches in their lives, yet we all tell stories every day. Telling a story can be a comfortable and natural way to generate momentum for the rest of the speech.

Five speech-starting don'ts
1. Begin with "Hi, my name is…" The sentences most likely to be remembered by the audience are the very first and the very last sentences you utter. Don't throw away the opportunity to do something meaningful in the opening line.

2. Make a false start. Avoid apologies and tentative statements that can put your credibility in question. Some typical phrases to avoid are: "Well, here goes," "Where shall I start?" and "Can you hear me OK in the back?"

3. Use a rhetorical question. Typically they result in an awkward moment where the audience is unsure if a response is really desired by the speaker. This can erode your confidence.

4. Go overboard.You want to be creative and innovative in attracting audience attention, but your opening should be consistent with your personality and with the tone of the rest of the speech.

5. Fail to consider how you'll get to the podium. Speaking areas are often crowded and nothing destroys your credibility like tripping on the way to the front of your audience. This happens to someone famous every year -- Senator Bob Dole and football coach Mike Ditka are recent examples.

-- Shawn Whalen

Back to Debate


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Last modified June 19, 2007, by the Office of Public Affairs and Publications