Public Speaking Secrets for ESL (2015)

Chapter 1: Stage Fright Speaks in Every Language, but . . .


Milosh sat at the coffee shop staring at his cappuccino when his friend Raj saw him. Asking if he could sit with him, Raj commented that it looked as if he were deep in thought.


Milosh readily opened up. “English isn’t your first language, Raj. You’ve spoken in public. Weren’t you the least bit nervous?”


“But, of course, I was” he said quickly. ”Are you scheduled to speak?”


“Yeah, and this is important. If I do a good job, I may be on the shortlist for the promotion at work. No pressure here, right?” He paused, took a sip of coffee and looked his friend in the eye, as if asking for advice. Finally he asked, “How do I survive this, let alone speak coherently enough to win that promotion?”


Have you found yourself in Milosh’s position? Do you have nightmares about being in such a position? If you believe it’s impossible to present a coherent, well-received public presentation while speaking your second language, English, think again.


You shouldn’t be surprised if you experience stage fright when you’re invited to speak before an audience – or even to give a presentation to a small group of individuals at work.


Even individuals who have spoken English all their lives know what stage fright feels like. Of course, I understand this innate fear may very well be heightened when English is your second language. I agree, it feels as if that one element throws an entirely new perspective on the event.


But that doesn’t mean you can’t conquer it. There are some easy ways to overcome stage fright – even when you’re speaking in your second language.


In this chapter we investigate the reasons why you – speaking in your second language – may feel the bite of stage fright a bit more than native speakers. We’ll even offer you methods that have worked for so many that reduce that fear as much as possible.

Broadly speaking, the fears are formed around five broad concerns.


Fear # 1 – I’m embarrassed by my foreign accent


Many individuals who speak English as a second language have that very same fear: What about my foreign accent? This fear not only includes a general embarrassment of your so-called accent, but the potentially devastating effects you mistakenly believe it may have on your presentation.


Let’s get one thing straight right now, even the most polished speakers are sometimes misunderstood. I’m not only talking about those who speak English as a second language, but native American speakers can easily be misunderstood in their own language.


Right now, I’m sure you’re not real concerned about those whose first language is English. But what if I told you that even one of the most famous non-native English speakers have been misunderstood when giving a presentation.


Even the Dalai Lama can be Misunderstood


Who? The Dalai Lama. Yes, the Tibetan leader was speaking at Brown University. The closed-caption transcriptionist mistook his saying the word “forget” for another, albeit, rather offense swear word, also beginning with the letter “f.”


The context in which this happened appeared simple enough, at least on the surface. The great spiritual leader said that if his listeners had found his ideas thought-provoking, to please share them with others. If not, then they could simply “forget.” That’s not what the transcriptionist heard or typed.


It’s unlikely that such a mistake will happen to you. And should it does happen, you can at least take some solace in knowing it’s also happened to none other than the Dalai Lama. So now that we’ve tried to assuage your fears some, let’s emphasize that accents shouldn’t be embarrassing.


Many individuals will actually spend more time listening to you speak (as long as they can understand you) with your accent than without. There are always those persons who are enthralled listening to the intonation as well as the meaning of the words.

According to some, that wasn’t the first time audience members have mistaken his word “forget” for the other, less tolerated (and much less spiritual) word. Have you heard that he has given up talking in English in public? Absolutely not.


So, let’s just push that fear right out of your mind. Not that I’m discouraging you from taking measures to reduce your accent. If you feel that would make you a better public speaker, then the moment you know you need to make a public presentation, then by all means start practicing exercises that will help overcome your accent.


Fear #2: What if I can’t find the right English words for my topic.


This can be a fear you can simply drop in the trash. You’ll have absolutely no problems searching for the correct word as long as you keep on practicing your presentation.

This piece of news is nothing new, speakers have known about it for years. The more you’ve prepared your speech – in essence work with words – the easier the proper words will pop into your mind.


This doesn’t’ matter if your first language is Spanish or Italian. Practice the words that surround your area of interest. The more words you can use when you talk, the better your speech will be. While you’re searching for one word using a thesaurus or other word will eventually be followed by even more words.


If you know your topic, chances are you won’t forget words. Of course, if you do forget an occasional word, it’s not the end of the world. Here, again, even native speakers forget words. Recover and move on. Just keep in mind while you’re practicing for this event, that the better acquainted you are with your topic, the least likely you are to forget a word.


Many speakers – regardless of their first language – may forget a word or two simply because they’re under stress. That’s why practicing can help. It will lessen the stress on you, making it far less likely for you to forget a word here or there or even chunks of your presentation.


You can easily understand why adequate preparation can help relieve your stress and in turn make it easier for your mind to recall the words you need whether it’s in your native language or not.


There are still two more tricks you can easily put into effect to help practically ensure that you don’t forget a word or two. The first is through preparing the “vocabulary” that forms the majority of your presentation and rehearse it continuously. If you know that every topic has “most used” words and phrases, you’ll be wise to study them and, specifically, say them out loud as often as you can.


The second trick is to place special emphasis and concentration on the start of your presentation. By this, I don’t mean to emphasize the beginning of your speech to the exclusion of the rest of it. The very first few minutes of this speech are critically important to your success. When you start off on the right foot, as they say, the better and easier it’ll be for you to develop the rest of your topic.


By emphasizing the beginning of your presentation and nailing it, you’ll also increase your self-confidence dramatically.


Fear # 3 – Is my English going to be easily Understood?


It’s a natural fear that you believe that some individuals in the audience may not understand your English. If you speak with an accent, you’re probably repeating yourself because people didn’t quite grasp what you said the first time around.

But, once again (and I’m sure you’re getting tired of me saying it) even some native speakers are tough to understand when they get to the podium to speak.


Your audience will find it much easier understanding you, when you structure your presentation properly, that is, in a logical progress. This ensures that those listening to the speech will be able to follow the flow of your presentation with ease. When it flows,  your audience doesn’t need to fumble around spending time thinking about how to piece your information together. That gives them more time to listen and comprehend you.


We’ll talk more about structure in a later chapter. The way in which you structure your presentation depends on its goal. You’ll prepare and structure your talk differently for different messages. This will help your audience in understanding you.


Secondly, much of what we call communication is simply the use of intonation of the language. Your audience is not only listening to what words you say, but also how you say them. A sure way to get their attention – and keep it – is to sound expressive as well as friendly.


Sounding “expressive” really shouldn’t be much of a problem. If you’re giving a presentation, it’s probably about a topic you’re at least interested in, if not passionate about. If you can convey your enthusiasm for the topic, then that will filter through to your audience and they’ll be enthusiastic too.


More than that, though, your intonation also reflects how your audience perceives the meaning of your words. The identical sentence, spoken with different emphases on different words, can and does take on different meanings.


Here’s a quick example of what I mean. Think of the sentence: “I’m sure he’ll think of a better plan.”


When no one word is stressed above any other it’s just a general statement. It carries no implications or connotations. Now, say that same sentence only emphasize the word “better.” This hints that that first plan was less than good.


If you say it emphasizing “he’ll” in the sentence, then that implies he is critical of the first plan and may not have even been the creator of it.


When the word “sure” is stressed then you’re expressing the fact that there is no doubt in your mind that he can think of a better plan.


As you can see, there are plenty of ways to interpret this sentence depending on the emphasis of your words. Every sentence you speak – especially in your presentation – can be taken and interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on your intonation.


Fear # 4 – I’m afraid my presentation will be boring because I speak too slowly


If this is your fear, you’ll be surprised to learn it’s really your strength. That’s right!


You’re aware that it’s natural for you to speak in your second language more slowly than you speak in your native tongue. But up to this point you may have considered it a weakness. At this very moment, it has now become a strength. Congratulations!


This is one area of using your developing language you don’t have to worry about. Native speakers are constantly told to slow down when speaking in public. If there is one major criticism – especially those who aren’t used to standing in front of the podium --  it’s they speak too fast. Their natural rapidity of speech is then exaggerated due to the stress they feel while they are speaking.


I have a friend whose first language is English. He’ll practice his presentation, even timing it, ensuring it’s just the right length. He doesn’t go over his allotted time and he’s provided time for questions and answers.


Do you know what happens when he actually gets in front of the audience? He shaves even more time off the presentation because he talks faster than he’s ever done in his practice sessions. He speaks even faster because he’s nervous.


When you’re speaking in public, you can’t use the same flow of words as in a normal, casual conversation. Why? Because your presentation (hopefully) contains new information for the audience to digest. They need the time. If they’re still trying to process that last sentence you said while you’ve already covered three more sentences, you’ve lost them.


That’s not fair to them – they aren’t receiving all the information you want them to have – or to you. They’re missing out on something important you want to convey and have been practicing. Speak too fast and it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone.

The best speakers adjust the pace of their speech. By doing this, they ensue that their listeners totally understand what’s being said.


The use of the subtle pauses in your speech also conveys certain meanings and adds emphasis to what you’re saying. It works, in fact, very much like intonation does. Let’s look at the words in this sentence, “If all of us do our share, we will succeed!”


Read it out loud. It could have any number of meanings when read with little enthusiasm and too quickly.  Now see how the entire meaning of the sentence changes when you place pauses in all the right places. “If (pause) all of us (pause) do our share (pause) we will succeed!”


Can you see how the second sentence is stronger than the first?


Fear # 5 – Will I understand the audience’s questions?


The question-and-answer portion of a speech generates the most fear for most individuals who speak English as a second language. Why? Because they feel as if they aren’t in control. They feel they can’t rehearse or prepare for potential questions.

Rest assured, that there are even professional speakers who present in their first language who are also intimidated by this portion of the presentation. Opening the floor up to questions is quite risky. You never know who’s about to ask what kind of question.

There really are methods you can use to provide you with the self-confidence you need to get you through this portion of the event.


First, you need to convince your inner fear-monger that you really aren’t walking into a lion’s den unprepared. That’s really the truth. You’ve undoubtedly prepared quite a while on this presentation. All you need to do is to spend just a little bit more time and anticipate – based on what you’re talking about – the potential audience questions.


Take a good, long look at your topic. What parts of the speech are most likely to produce the most questions? This becomes fairly easy if you’re presenting any controversial or new ideas. Right away, you can count on someone challenging them or at the very least desiring to learn more about them.


Once you have identified these parts, then you can just about guess off the top of your head what questions you’ll be asked. Secondly, keep in mind that you are the expert. Look at you. You’re the individual standing at the podium. You’re the person talking to the audience. That point should not be lost on you. Trust me, it’s not lost on the audience. It means (in case you need reminding) that you know your material very well.

Simply put, if you’ve prepared every other part of your speech, then you’ll be able to handle the question-and-answer session – even if English is your second language.

If your fear, as a speaker of English as a second language, is that you won’t understand a question, here are a few strategies you can employ to buy you a bit more time before you answer.


Simply ask the audience member to repeat the question under the pretense that you didn’t hear it.


Ask the questioner to clarify what he means. In this way, you’ll have another chance to hear the question (from a different angle, perhaps) while you’re planning your response.


This brings us to the final question in this part. What if, despite everything, you really don’t know the answer to one of the questions? Don’t panic. It happens to everyone. Simply admit you don’t know the answer, that you’ve never been confronted with the question before this, but that you certainly would be happy to investigate it further. After all, you may decide to add, you’re eager to know the answer as well.


In this chapter, we’ve talked about preparation as the key to gaining any confidence in public speaking. In the following chapter we’ll provide you with a few of the keys to prepare yourself for your big day.