I remember the first time I was on ‘stage’. It was in my second year in secondary school, in the northern part of Nigeria, West Africa. I was a gawky, bespectacled, very clumsy 12-year old girl with a serious ‘ugly duckling’ complex. My mother had bought some lovely school things for the new school term, one of which was my ‘Cortina’ shoes, all shiny and new from a top range shoe factory at the time. The only problem was that, according to the strange laws and ways of the teenage world, those shoes were only worn by bespectacled gawky girls and boys like me!
I had walked to class, all shiny and bright on that memorable day, unaware of what lay in store for me. Just before I got to class, I heard singing and drumming and wondered whose birthday it was. Lo and behold, it was mine! Only it was not my birthday but a celebration of my new shiny ‘Cortina’ shoes! The boys and girls in my class were singing the TV advert song for ‘Cortina’ shoes.
“Back to school with the Cortina! Cortina! Cortina! Back to school with the Cortina!” they sang, laughing heartily at my embarrassment.
It was like a homecoming in a nightmare. I walked into the classroom, struggling to push the tears back. Then a strange thing happened. I did the unexpected!
I took the offensive and literally stopped the show! I jumped on a desk and started to tap with my ‘Cortina’ shoes (Yes! I know … that girl did some crazy things back then!)
The room went quiet in shock and then erupted into a frenzy of loud laughter and clapping. The jeering and cruel taunting turned into admiration and an unspoken acceptance into their world! No one saw my red ears (well that’s a bit hard under black skin!) or heard my thumping heart: I had stolen the show, ‘Cortina’ shoes and all! And that’s how I made my debut into the public eye!
Looking back at that event, many things strike me as very instructive and indeed very relevant when preparing to stand before an audience for a performance, talk or presentation.
It is a message of some sort which usually has an objective. It could be all about you, the audience or a more general topic. However, the manner and method of delivery varies according to the type of speech, presentation or performance.
For example, if the speech is a presentation to be made in a formal or professional environment, the content, length and style of delivery will be expected to reflect this.
Be it an Islamic lecture in a masjid, a humorous anecdote at a family function or an inspirational talk delivered to students, you will need to tailor the speech to fit the occasion.
Whether an audience of one, two or two hundred, he, she or they all want the same thing: something from you. The audience wants you to be stimulating, informative, and entertaining. As a speaker, you must take into account the gender, age, educational background, and interests of the audience as these will affect the topic, style of delivery, language and length of the speech. Certain audiences will expect you to be formal, others more familiar. Some will be critical, others welcoming. Some will require detailed information and will be able to handle technical language or specialised terms, others will need the topic explained in layman’s terms.
As a speaker, you will encounter many different situations: sometimes you will be prepared for your appearance, and sometimes you will be thrown into it. Whatever situation you find yourself in, the bottom line is that everyone, given the right understanding, knowledge and a certain amount of skill and eventually experience can stand before the public and be successful.
But you must know yourself: are you a friendly, relatively outgoing person? Shy? Serious and professional? Do you give your best to whatever you do, pay attention to details or are you sloppy and careless in your actions? How good are your language skills? What do you want to achieve when you speak? What is your intention? There are many features that make a good speaker, the important thing is to develop your character and strengths and then be ready to share these with others.
A lot have been written on this topic, but here are a few that have helped me mature from that gawky unsure girl into a confident and competent public speaker. Of course, it is always a work in progress but I pray you find one or two of the following tips useful, insha Allah.
Do the research, know what you want to present and put your presentation together carefully. You cannot give what you don’t have. It can be very embarrassing to give the wrong information to an audience and have one or two people take you up on it. Practise your speech and revise it if necessary. If you’re not familiar with your material or are uncomfortable with it, your nervousness will increase. Try using cue cards to remind you of your main points. Put all the things you need for your presentation together in one place.
Visualize yourself giving your speech, your voice loud, clear, and assured, your message hitting home run, leaving your audience more informed, with contented smiles and feelings of gratitude that their time has been well spent. When you visualise yourself as successful, you will be successful, insha Allah.
Not What the Cat Brought in, Please
Pay attention to your appearance, dress smartly and appropriately, in a way that makes you feel relaxed yet confident. Impressions do matter, the cloth might not make the monk but it sure adds to the moment. Being appropriately groomed boosts confidence in you and in your audience. So, don’t wear shoes that pinch or a hijab that keeps slipping – it will only sap your confidence and distract your audience.
Diction and Delivery
I have often seen a wonderful talk go steadily downhill because the speaker kept struggling with words. It’s like eating a delicious meal and then finding that you keep crunching on stones with every other spoonful – eventually you will lose your appetite. Practise with a tape recorder and play it back to listen to yourself. Listen to newsreaders on radio or TV or attend language and speech classes if you need to. It is not just the message, the medium matters too.
Be familiar with the place in which you will speak. Arrive early, walk around the speaking area and practise using the microphone and any visual aids. Know the audience; speak to them in the language they would understand. Use examples that they can easily identify with and watch out for the different temperaments that might be displayed. Be friendly, greet some of the audience as they arrive, it’s easier to speak to a group of friends than to a group of strangers.
A little humour is a great way to break the ice as well as make the message more appealing. However a word of caution here, it is always best to keep it truthful and avoid ‘tired’ jokes and clichés as well as lewd or inappropriate jokes which may be ‘politically incorrect’. Also humour must never be too much, or it may be the undoing of the talk as it quickly turns into a ‘Comedy Hour’, thereby defeating the purpose of the talk and taking away from the message!
It is just a speech! Focus your attention away from your own anxiety, and outwards toward your message and your audience. Your nervousness will dissipate and turn into positive energy. Harness your nervous energy and transform it into vitality and enthusiasm. Ease tension by doing exercises and drinking enough water.
Try to be yourself; don’t apologise for every little mistake. You may be calling the audience’s attention to something they hadn’t noticed. Keep silent but if you must say it, say it quickly and move on.
Remember how Prophet Musa (AS) prayed to Allah (SWT) when he had to speak to Pharaoh:
“O my Lord! Open for me my chest (grant me self contentment and confidence and boldness) and ease my task for me. And loose the knot of defect from my tongue (i.e that is the incorrectness from speech). That they understand my speech.” (Taha: 25 – 28)
Remember, no two speeches are ever the same and the more you gain experience, the more you will feel confident enough to handle the good, the bad and the ugly of public speaking. Just look how far I have come from my ‘Cortina’ days!
Summayyah Sadiq-Ojibara is from Nigeria. She is a Writer, Communications Consultant, Training and Life Coach and Events Facilitator among other things. She currently resides in Melbourne Australia with her husband and children.