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— John Zimmer
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Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organization’s membership exceeds 313,000 in more than 14,650 clubs in 126 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. I have been a member since 2007.
Toastmasters recently named seven speeches as the most “buzzworthy” of 2014. The speeches were chosen because they were personal, memorable and heartfelt, and they captured the attention of audiences around the world. What is the secret to giving a speech that is viewed and shared by millions of people? As Toastmasters says, “A successful speech resonates with interesting content and a heartfelt delivery.”
Each speech below has its merits. You should take the time to watch at least a few of them. And if you would like to recommend one of your favourite speeches of 2014, please leave a comment with a link to it.
- March 2: When Matthew McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” he described the three things he needs each day: 1. Something to look up to. 2. Something to look forward to. 3. Someone to chase.
- March 20: In his TED Talk, leadership expert Simon Sinek explored what makes a great leader. He suggested it’s someone who makes his or her employees feel secure and who draws staffers into a circle of trust. Creating trust and safety—especially in an uneven economy—means taking on big responsibility.
- May 6: After winning the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, Kevin Durant brought the audience (and himself) to tears while thanking his mother during his acceptance speech for being “the real MVP.”
- May 28: Returning to Harvard, her alma mater, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg addressed the graduating seniors and told them, “The first time I spoke out about what it was like to be a woman in the workforce was less than five years ago. That means that for 18 years, from where you sit to where I stand, my silence implied that everything was OK. You can do better than I did, and I mean that so sincerely.”
- Aug. 18: After a tough loss in the Little League World Series, David Belisle, coach of the Cumberland American Little League team, delivered an inspiring postgame speech to his players, telling the team, “You’ve given me the most precious moment of my athletic and coaching career.”
- Aug. 23: In his speech, “I See Something,” Sri Lankan Dananjaya Hettiarachchi inspired the audience with his story of personal growth and was crowned Toastmasters’ 2014 World Championship of Public Speaking. Hettiarachchi beat 30,000 other contestants from 126 countries to win the championship.
- Oct. 10: Two years after surviving a terrorist attack for advocating girls’ education, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner. In her speech, Yousafzai vowed to continue speaking out on the importance of education, saying children around the world “should stand up for their rights” and “not wait for someone else.”
“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
— Mark Twain
Giving a speech or presentation can be stressful. Even seasoned public speakers get butterflies in their stomachs prior to stepping on stage. Most people deal with the pressure by trying to calm down. They sit quietly, take deep breaths and tell themselves, silently or aloud, to calm down, that there is nothing to worry about, etc. But recent research suggests that this might be precisely the wrong strategy.
In a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which is published by the American Psychological Association, Professor Alison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School found that “[a]n overwhelming majority of people (more than 90%) believe the best way to manage pre-performance anxiety is to ‘try to calm down'”. Brooks believes that a better approach is to reframe the anxiety as excitement.
Drawing on previous research, Professor Brooks describes anxiety as “a state of distress and/or physiological arousal in reaction to stimuli including novel situations and the potential for undesirable outcomes”. Such stimuli include singing in front of others, taking a test, having a job interview and, of course, speaking in public.
All psychological states share two attributes: arousal and valence. Arousal can be high (e.g., afraid, excited) or low (e.g., bored, relaxed). Valence refers to whether a psychological state is positive (e.g., excited, relaxed) or negative (e.g., afraid bored.) Thus, psychological states can be divided into quadrants, such as in the grid below.
Research shows that trying to decrease anxiety before an event is difficult (because high arousal is automatic) and often ineffective. Professor Brooks writes that when you try to calm down before an anxiety-producing event, you are trying to shift both your arousal (from high to low) and your valence (from negative to positive).
It is much better, in her opinion, to reframe the anxiety as excitement because anxiety and excitement are both high arousal psychological states. Professor Brooks says that they are arousal congruent. Thus, instead of trying to change both arousal and valence, with Professor Brook’s approach, you only have to change valence.
So far, so good. But what do you have to do to get yourself in a positive frame of mind? According to Professor Brooks, it might be something very simple. She conducted several studies, the design and procedures of which are thoroughly detailed in her paper, which you can read here.
One of those tests involved public speaking. Participants were given two minutes to prepare a speech on the topic, “Why you are a good work partner”. To increase the anxiety of the participants, Professor Brooks told them that the speeches would be delivered to an experimenter and would be videoed for later judging by a “committee of peers”.
After preparing their speeches but before delivering them, participants were randomly assigned to say “I am excited” or “I am calm”. They then delivered their speeches. The experimenter to whom the speeches were delivered and the independent raters who watched the videos were blind to the experimental conditions and hypothesis.
Those participants who said “I am excited” spoke longer than those who said “I am calm”; they reported feeling more excited about their speeches; and they felt marginally more satisfied with their speeches. As for the (blind) evaluators, they found that the participants who had said “I am excited” were more persuasive, more competent and more confident than their counterparts.
On this particular test, Dr. Brooks concludes:
Being asked to give a 2-min public speech on camera caused individuals to feel very anxious. Compared with reappraising their anxiety as calmness by stating “I am calm,” reappraising anxiety as excitement by stating “I am excited” caused individuals to feel more excited, to speak longer, and to be perceived as more persuasive, competent, confident, and persistent.
As to why reframing anxiety as excitement improves performance, Dr. Brooks posits:
[I]ndividuals in a positive affective state are more likely to interpret issues as opportunities, whereas individuals in a negative affective state are more likely to interpret issues as threats. In this way, excitement may prime an “opportunity” mind-set, whereas trying to calm down may perpetuate a “threat” mind-set.
[R]eappraising anxiety as excitement will cause individuals to adopt an opportunity mind-set and improve their performance, whereas reappraising anxiety as calmness will cause individuals to perpetuate the threat mind-set typically associated with feeling anxious.
Dr. Brooks acknowledges that more research needs to be done on this subject. She recognizes that other strategies, such as meditation, might be useful to calm down before anxiety-inducing events. And, of course, the timing of such strategies (e.g., one week before the event vs 15 minutes before the event) is important. But she maintains that her findings “demonstrate the profound control and influence we have over our own emotions.”
I found Dr. Brooks’ paper very insightful. When I began my speaking career, I would usually try to calm down in the minutes before I stepped on stage. With time, I changed my approach, and began to “pump myself up” with positive messages about how I would perform. The latter approach boosts my confidence and helps me hit the stage with a high level of energy.
Clearly, the way we verbalize and think about our feelings affects the way we feel, and how we feel can have a big impact on how we perform. So the next time you have to speak in public, as you are getting ready to go on stage, instead of trying to calm down, get excited!