The fear of public speaking – Interview with Nicole Wells

The fear of public speaking - Interview with Nicole WellsSpeaking in public is not an easy task. Who has not been in a meeting listening to a presentation? Sometimes it can be a moment of real gloom, sometimes a pure delight. It all depends on the person standing there in front of you delivering the speech. Looking around you see that the audience is either falling asleep or paying attention. We asked Nicole Wells, who teaches Public Speaking in the well-known New York University and the prestigious Stern School of Business, to give us some advice and to share some of her visions about the matter.
Q: Nicole, you are a specialist in public speaking. Could you tell us more about what you do?
I specialize in public speaking and accent reduction. I can help people polish a presentation, overcome performance anxiety or to speak English without a foreign or regional accent. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in acting, and that training serves as a base for my work. For accent reduction, I use the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is a system that reduces all of the sounds of the English language into to symbols. I can listen to how you pronounce the language and teach you how to speak with a more American accent. That is how I would teach somebody to change: usually paying attention to a couple of vowel sounds can help you reduce any accent.
It is important for some people to know what sounds make them difficult to understand when speaking English in business presentations. We can build up a speaker’s confidence by adjusting a few sounds.
Q: How would you do that?
What I would do is learn your accent. I would then pick out a few key sounds that you are saying that, to an American ear, are difficult to understand. I would teach you what those sounds are and give you sentences to practice and eventually it will become natural for you. So essentially, I’d teach you an American accent, or a more neutral accent, and this could really make a big difference in a month or two.
Q: You are teaching in two prestigious places.
The classes I teach at the at New York University’s School for Continuing and Professional Studies are for adult New Yorkers who want to get over their fear of public speaking. The course that I teach at NYU’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business is for business students and focuses on developing their presentation skills, writing skills and overall communication.
Q: Sometimes you find yourself in an audience where most people are half-asleep. Are there some tricks to keep people’s attention?
It takes a lot of audience analysis. You need to know who your audience is, what they care about, why they are there and what information they are looking for. I recommend the AIM approach: Audience, Intent and Message. First, you have to concentrate on your audience, as I said before. Secondly, your intent, what do you want to do—are you trying to persuade them to do something? Then your message is your content or topic. You have to find a blend of all three of the AIM components to really capture your audience’s attention. The best thing to do, however, in general terms, is to speak in pictures, to recount stories and anecdotes. This is a much more helpful way for your audience to absorb information and is more interesting for them. Rather than tell an audience that the Empire State Building is 1,454 feet high, create a picture: If you stacked 215 subway cars end to end they would be just a little bit taller than the Empire State Building. Many speakers only give you facts and figures. People cannot take all that in, but if you can include the same information within the context of a story or analogy, it is much easier for people to absorb. And it will capture their attention! You need to find a balance as you obviously cannot just tell stories without the facts and evidence.
Q: Do you enjoying teaching?
Yes! I meet a lot of interesting people. What I find is that there are many intelligent and successful people who are afraid to get up an express themselves in front of an audience. It’s mind-boggling at times how many people suffer from this fear and how tough it is for them to accept that they are much more eloquent than they imagine themselves to be. I think it is the fear of saying something wrong or being judged by the audience. People might “find out” that you are not as knowledgeable as you would like them to believe.
Q: Do you think you need an actor’s talent to be a good public speaker?
No, I do not. I’ve seen people with scratchy voices and no gestures capture an audience’s attention. There are general things I could teach you about delivery techniques that work, but the best approach is to find what works for you and develop your own style. Then you can be just as compelling as an actor. And quite frankly, many performers can be self-involved and therefore, not interesting to listen to at all!
I think you can develop charisma. It stems from confidence, from the message you are delivering and practice. Some people have a ready talent for it, but you still have to develop that talent to become really great. The shyer folks may not take to being the spotlight naturally, but through practice and training they can become just as good as those extroverted types.
Q: Would you recommend people in the international organizations to follow courses in public speaking? If they do not have access to it, what can they do to develop it?
I do think improvement is about practice and receiving feedback, whether it’s from your colleagues, friends, superiors or somebody who has experience in public speaking. One thing I do nowadays is that I have put together a group called the Communication Gym, which meets once a month. The idea is that we are going to “work out” our communications skills. Whoever wants to practice may come. Some people do presentations and then get feedback from everybody in the room, including myself, others just observe and offer feedback. By doing this every month and delivering speeches at work or you can develop your speaking style.
Q: How is it organized? How can people join?
The dates will be posted on my web-site and you can check it out. People can just stop in. I hope to hold it once a month throughout the city, so people can just come in and do speeches they have prepared.
Q: You said earlier that you were trained as an actor. How did you end up doing public speaking?
I was given the opportunity to teach a class called “Developing your Speaking Voice”, which I had experience with from my actor training. The following semester, NYU, SCPS had a slot open to teach a public speaking course and the administration asked if I would like to teach it. I jumped at the chance, because I had overcome my own of fear of public speaking and I it sounded like an interesting course. I used my own experience, my actor training and further research to create the assignments and syllabus. The courses have become quite popular, so I keep on doing research and developing my skills. It is so rewarding; far more than acting ever was, because I get direct contact and a connection with people. I feel that I can make a difference by helping people overcome this fear, because a person’s professional development can benefit a lot by improving his or her speaking skills. I find it far more gratifying than entertaining an audience.
For further information contact Nicole Wells…at