If you dread the mere thought of “public speaking,” you are among millions of individuals who feel the same way. Giving a speech ranks above snakes, death and financial ruin in the hierarchy of human fears. Furthermore, it doesn’t take a large audience to trigger panic. Just presenting material out loud to one person can set your heart pounding and your mouth feeling as dry as the Gobi Desert.
You may think that, as a paralegal, you will never have to give a speech. But if you define a speech as any information you prepare and deliver verbally to another person, or a group, then you could find yourself becoming a “speaker” fairly often.
For example, your attorney might ask you to research a particular statute or code and report your findings to her both verbally and in writing. Or, you may work as part of a paralegal team and need to advise team members about witnesses you have interviewed, or records you have gathered.
It may happen, as your career progresses, that you are called upon to speak to a paralegal group, or to a mixed group of paralegals and attorneys, about an area in which you have gained special knowledge.
Common to these scenarios is preparation, a major key to your success as a speaker. It is also the first tip for managing speaker’s anxiety:
1.) Be prepared
Once you have written out what you’re going to say, outline it on index cards or a legal pad. Practice it out loud until your material becomes a part of you. It will come out a little different each time and that is good because you want to sound authentic, not stiff. Don’t read material verbatim unless you are presenting specific legal data or quotes that must be read directly from a source.
Try practicing in front of a friend, or a mirror. Record yourself on audio or video so you can catch grammatical and usage errors you didn’t notice in writing. You will also hear if you are speaking too fast, using “filler” words such as, “like” and “you know,” or exercising other poor speech habits.
Practice is crucial because the more familiar you are with your material, the more confident and comfortable you feel. Another bonus: Your confidence is appreciated by your audience and enhances your presentation.
2.) Relax yourself beforehand
My favorite form of relaxation is Yoga breathing. You simply sit in a chair, feet on the floor (or sit cross-legged on the floor) and close your eyes. Place your hands, palms upward, on your thighs. Breathe in slowly through your nose to the silent count of four. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, silently counting backwards from four. Breathe evenly and deeply. Concentrate on your breath and your counting.
Place your hand on your stomach and make sure it is moving in and out.
Five or seven minutes of this will both refresh and center you.
3.) Warm up your voice and body
Vocal warm ups can be done in the car on your way to work. They tune up your voice, loosen up your tongue, mouth and face and help reduce anxiety.
Some warm ups just involve making sounds. Watch this YouTube Video
Others are tongue twisters, such as these two classics:
The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue
The tip of the tongue, the teeth, the lips
Red leather, yellow leather
Repeat these 10-20 times, saying them as fast as you can, making sure to enunciate carefully.
I like warm ups because they quiet the mind and take it off of the presentation that lies ahead. They engage the voice, the face and, if you choose, the body. Here are some good physical warm ups:
To release tension, try singing the first minute or so of your talk when you warm up. Another trick is to make crazy faces and weird voices during your preparation. It’s a fun way to remind yourself that it’s okay not to be perfect.
4.) “Own” the room where you will be speaking
Arrive early. Nothing is more frazzling than rushing. Arrange the room to suit you, if it isn’t someone’s office. Remove anything that is distracting, unnecessary or hazardous, i.e., a cord trailing over the carpet, a pen you don’t need.
Now, walk around the space. See from different angles the spot where you’ll be standing/sitting.
Practice at least the first two minutes of your talk. Hear your voice in the room. Do some slow, deep breathing.
5.) Keep calm and carry on
While you are speaking, here are some things that will help keep your anxiety at bay:
- Memorize the first two minutes of your material
- Always have speaker’s notes nearby, if not in hand
- Find a friendly face and look at it periodically
- Involve your listener(s): use their names; use the word “you” often, ask rhetorical questions (“Can you imagine how much that would cost?”)
- If you are standing, keep your knees unlocked. Check now and then to make sure your legs aren’t stiff. Stiff legs cause your whole body to stiffen up.
- If you’re standing, and there is room, walk. Don’t pace, just move slowly from one spot to another. Walking utilizes the restless energy that accompanies anxiety.
- Standing or sitting, use gestures. Moving your arms and hands also helps redirect nervous energy.
A final note on speaker’s anxiety in your paralegal career: Even if you speak in front of others a good deal, you may always feel anxious. The goal is to manage your feelings so that you rise above them and give a strong presentation. Just stand and deliver, and act “as if.” Every time you finish speaking, your confidence will rise a degree.
Gretchen Havens teaches Introduction to Speech Communication at Center for Advanced Legal Studies. Through CALS, she also conducts workshops for paralegals seeking to improve their communication skills in the workplace. She has taught “Presenting Yourself” for the School of Continuing Studies at Rice University, served as a private voiceover coach, and taught advertising courses for the School of Continuing Studies at Rice and the Women’s Institute of Houston.