Embody the Material: How a Few Simple Techniques can take the Anxiety out of Public Speaking

When I talk to people about public speaking, there seems to be a checklist of things that the speakers are afraid of: what if the material doesn’t sound right, what if the research isn’t sound, and the like. The number one fear that speakers have though, seems to be the least definable and yet the most widespread: the fear of being a lone person subject to a widespread audience.

The situation of being a lone speaker sparks myriad questions and anxieties in the speaker’s head, and they all deal with how the crowd will interpret and judge the speaker and not the speech or the content thereof. Most often I hear of how the speaker imagines the audience as having prior knowledge of the speaker’s inner life, regardless of any outside indicators such as “fidgeting” or stuttering.

What is actually at root of the matter is that even though the speech content may be from the experiences and research of the speaker, it is psychologically removed from the speaker at the time of performance. This divide of speaker and speech creates an empty space of sorts that the speaker tends to fill in with their worries and reactions; here is where the trouble, but also the solution begins.

Close, and then Eliminate the Gap

Most speakers imagine themselves as separate from the subject matter, as if just presenting it will do the job. Sheer information doesn’t engage minds as well as the information embodied in something they are well familiar with – other humans. When people see an engaging person or personality, they tend to internalize and mimic their subject. The motions and emotions displayed become the viewer’s emotions, and for a sales pitch, this is gold because the subject has already made a home inside the audience’s minds and hearts. Here, a bit of metamorphosis is involved.

The most engaging speakers take the information and present it as if THEY ARE the information. This technique has been used for decades by actors as “Method Acting”, whereas they adapt their public and private lives’ experiences and their present motions to the role that they are playing.

Here is where things become abstract and some personal experimenting is involved.  Successful speakers tend to “close the gap” between themselves and the subject matter (in this example, sunglasses) by asking themselves some sometimes whimsical questions such as:

  • How are the sunglasses styled?
  • Who would be using these sunglasses?
  • What is the “attitude” of these glasses?
  • What is the attitude of the people wearing them?
  • How would the wearers act when wearing them?
  • Why wouldn’t the wearers choose another brand?

Write down whatever comes to mind, and envision the speaker as the subject matter. Now try acting it out- what kind of speaker is making the speech? When you think of them, when you see their mannerisms, do you want to connect with this person? Does this person leave you with the correct impression?

Embodying the subject material puts a readily recognizable human face on what may otherwise be plain data. It creates a model for the audience to identify and interact with in real time. We see this everybody with the use of actors and actresses – most of whom we’ve never met – becoming the next-door neighbor, the trustworthy stranger, or even the remote yet comforting authority figure whose mere presence conveys a wealth of information and opinion that many cannot help but abide by.

These figures, through their combination of information and play-acting have become characters that are internalized by their audiences. Now it is your turn to discover how you can embody your subject, how you can remind your audience of the human potential of the information, rather than presenting it as something remote and abstract. When trying to find an object, you may ask yourself: “if I were sunglasses, where would I be?” In this case, one would ask: “If I were sunglasses, HOW would I be?”


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