How to Overcome Your Terror of Making an Off-the-Cuff Speech
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    How to Overcome Your Terror of Making an Off-the-Cuff Speech

    Excited to have collaborated with the Wall Street Journal on this article that offers guidance to those wishing to hone or improve their spontaneous speaking.

    The boss turns to you in a meeting and asks: What do you think? Or asks you to deliver spontaneous remarks or make a toast at an office gathering. Do you freeze on the spot? Ramble endlessly? Break into a nervous sweat?

    Impromptu pitches, toasts and talks far outnumber planned presentations in the workplace. Such challenges strike terror in the hearts of one in four Americans, making them more daunting than snakes, stalkers or spiders, according to Chapman University’s annual fear survey.

    New research offers strategies for controlling anxiety over public speaking and turning it to your advantage. It’s a skill experts say can be mastered with a little emotional intelligence, and some practice structuring your responses in clear, simple ways.

    Performing poorly can do serious career damage. Matt Abrahams, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, saw a former co-worker on a previous job deliver a strong presentation. During the ensuing Q&A session, however, “he froze, and his answers were contradictory and rambling,” Mr. Abrahams says. His reputation damaged, the man soon left the company.

    “People get overwhelmed. They’re flooded with ideas and don’t know which path to take,” says Ben Decker, chief executive of Decker Communications, a San Francisco consulting and training firm. Some worry so much about performing perfectly that they are paralyzed by fear of failure. Others try to call up mental lists of facts or points, or fret about whether they are making a good impression rather than getting their message across.

    Unraveling all that requires emotional-intelligence skills that can be learned. Panicky thinking can cause what researchers call cognitive interference, eclipsing the brain’s ability to think and reason, according to a recent review of 22 studies on workplace anxiety in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It also can cause emotional exhaustion that can lead to indiscreet behavior, such as trying to cover up your embarrassment by telling a bad joke.

    Monitoring your anxiety before it mounts to debilitating levels and redirecting your thoughts to the task at hand can improve performance, according to the review. Interpreting the anxiety as an energizing force and telling yourself, “I am excited,” leads off-the-cuff speakers to be seen by listeners as more confident and persuasive, according to a 2014 study cited in the review.

    Shift your focus toward your listeners and away from yourself, says Mr. Abrahams, a principal in BoldEcho Communication Solutions of Palo Alto, Calif. “Rather than striving for greatness, challenge yourself to just accomplish the task at hand,” he says. Lay the groundwork for an emotional connection with the audience by starting with a positive emotion, such as, “I was really excited when you asked that.”

    Orsula Knowlton, president and co-founder of Tabula Rasa HealthCare Inc., faced daily demands to speak extemporaneously in 2016, when she helped take the Moorestown, N.J., company public. A pharmacist by training, she fielded questions from analysts and investors about Tabula Rasa, a health-care technology company that specializes in medication risk management. “That was a huge learning curve for me,” Dr. Knowlton says. “You’re under so much stress.”

    When answering investor questions, Orsula Knowlton, president and co-founder of Tabula Rasa HealthCare, aims to keeps her responses succinct and clear. Photo: Donna Connor

    At a recent investor conference, Dr. Knowlton sat under a spotlight on stage for 30 minutes, answering questions without notes. She focused on the audience, she says, asking herself, “What are people waiting to hear from you?” She summoned positive emotions by thinking, “I’m grateful that they asked the question.” And she kept her answers succinct and clear by organizing them around three questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? And where are we going?

    Mr. Abrahams recommends using a three-part framework for structuring off-the-cuff remarks. Three steps are easy to remember and can help get your points across without rambling. One approach is to state the problem, describe the solution and summarize the benefits, he says. Another is to use a “what, so what, now what?” mental road map—stating the issue or topic, explaining why it matters and laying out next steps.

    With coaching from Mr. Abrahams, Marty Neese uses both setups when answering questions from potential partners about the startup he co-founded, Nuvosil. The Oslo, Norway, firm recycles silicon waste from the solar industry. The frameworks help him keep his answers short but complete. “I’m just getting to the point and stripping it down to the bare essentials,” Mr. Neese says.

    Marty Neese, co-founder of Nuvosil, simplifies explanations of his company’s goals by addressing the questions: What’s the problem? What’s the solution? And what are the benefits? Photo: Danny Turner

    Practice speaking off the cuff, Mr. Decker says. Speak up in meetings, volunteer to give toasts or step up to the mic to ask a question at a conference. Use the skills in conversations around the dinner table. “Treat every opportunity as a practice round,” he says. Like professional athletes, the best are ready to go at any time.

    One government employee walked onto an elevator and found herself alone with the new head of her agency, says Lynne Waymon, who conducted communications training for employees at the agency. Instead of seizing the chance to introduce herself and say something about her work, she froze and stood side by side with her new boss in awkward silence. Later, she thought of things she could have said to make a good impression, says Ms. Waymon, CEO of Contacts Count, a Newtown, Pa., consulting firm.

    “You have to be prepared to be spontaneous,” Ms. Waymon says. She tells clients to develop a positive story about their jobs or roles. When asked to speak, strive for a warm emotional connection by imagining a string connecting them with each listener in the room, she says. Strive to make the strings taut with excitement and positive energy.

    Be aware of your body language says Traci Brown, a Boulder, Colo., speaker and author on body language. Like tells in poker, shifty eyes, fidgety feet or a wide, nervous grin can telegraph to listeners that you’re nervous or, worse yet, that you’re lying.

    After making a speech at a convention, Laurie Guest was taken aback by off-topic questions from an interviewer during a follow-up Q&A session. Although her heart was pounding, she struck a confident, friendly pose, smiling, nodding and leaning toward the interviewer with her back straight, says Ms. Guest, a DeKalb, Ill., speaker and trainer.

    The positive body language kept the exchange friendly in tone and gave her more energy to come up with succinct answers, she says. “If your body language is open and agreeable, you’ll feel that way.”

    Tips for becoming a confident public speaker:

    • Assume you’ll be asked to speak and always be ready.
    • Have in mind a simple three-part structure for your response.
    • Practice answering questions in informal settings, such as around the dinner table.
    • Be aware of your body language under stress and avoid misleading tells.
    • Treat your anxiety as a normal response and tell yourself: I’m excited.
    • Focus on what listeners want and need to know, rather than on yourself.
    • Speak in a conversational tone and avoid rushing.
    • Strive to convey information and meaning rather than to perform perfectly.
    • Ask trusted colleagues or mentors for feedback on how to improve.