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The Massive Classroom

University of Washington senior lecturer Matt McGarrity is teaching an online course on public speaking to tens of thousands of people around the world this summer. How’s he doing?

July 22, 2013 at 9:11 AM

How to avoid a public-speaking meltdown

The speech was so painful to watch that it made my toes curl.

Three weeks into the online class “Introduction to Public Speaking,” University of Washington lecturer Matt McGarrity introduced us to a vivid example of what failure looks like.

The video clip he used featured a man testifying at a public hearing who completely, dramatically, embarrassingly lost all ability to string together a coherent thought in midsentence. For a few seconds, the speaker couldn’t breathe. (As a reporter who has covered many, many public hearings, I found the speaker’s meltdown all too familiar.)

For many people – certainly for me – overcoming public speaking apprehension is the key to this class. And this type of spectacular failure is probably at the root of my fears.

So how do you avoid a meltdown? There are no magic tricks here, McGarrity explains; a lot of the work involves practice. He’s advised us to learn how to speak conversationally to the audience instead of using a prepared text, visualize yourself doing well and learn good breathing techniques so you don’t run out of oxygen mid-sentence.

With all this in mind, I videotaped my first real speech. Perhaps the biggest revelation was that I wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. (This is not the same as saying I did well, but I wasn’t awful.)

I submitted my speech to my fellow classmates through YouTube, and next week I’ll get their feedback. But after listening to McGarrity’s lectures, I can see a few obvious problems with my delivery.

I discovered – to my surprise – that I occasionally paused in the middle of a sentence, rather than at the end. That’s an annoying habit, but it’s also one I can easily fix.

I need to do a better job of projecting my voice. I need to slow down when I reach key phrases, and I need to be more purposeful about gestures and movement.

If I’d been taking McGarrity’s public speaking class at the UW, I would have performed my impromptu speech in front of a group of about 14 other students, led by a teaching assistant. But recording my own speech with a video camera, then going back through my notes and thinking about how I sound, was a useful practice.

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