Words of Wisdom

Dec. 1, 1996
Public speaking makes everyone nervous, including the experts. However, a well-prepared speech can do wonders for your reputation, as well as boost the image of the practice that employs you. By following some simple guidelines, you can speak publicly with confidence.

Public speaking makes everyone nervous, including the experts. However, a well-prepared speech can do wonders for your reputation, as well as boost the image of the practice that employs you. By following some simple guidelines, you can speak publicly with confidence.

Judith E. Sulik, RDH, MBA

Have you ever been asked to give a speech to a group of prospective patients? Excuse me. A community group. Please forgive the slip, but when I think of a meeting room filled with people listening attentively and enthusiastically to a dental hygienist giving a speech, I see more than just an audience. I see people who need dental care.

What do you see?

Instead of seeing a practice expansion opportunity, you`re cheating yourself of a golden opportunity to enrich the reputation of both you and the practice if:

* You see a group of skeptics cynically waiting for you to stutter and stammer, flub, and fail.

* You politely refuse all speaking requests.

* Your hands begin to sweat just thinking about public speaking.

Able, articulate, and animated people who communicate well project confidence. Confident people inspire trust. People want to trust their dental office. Consequently, people will be more likely to trust a self-confident dental hygienist who communicates well.

Once you`ve mastered some elementary public speaking rules and techniques, you should be pleasantly surprised to discover that your communication skills will improve in many areas of your life. With practice, you`ll communicate more effectively with your staff, patients, colleagues, and family. Even if you`re comfortable giving presentations, the following tips should help you to become a more polished and professional speaker.

The fundamentals of speaking well

Trust the audience. They want you to do well. They came to hear what you have to say, and they don`t want to feel as if their time was wasted. They`re actually rooting for you to succeed because it`s in their best interest that you do well.

Nervousness Is natural. Understand that many experienced professional public speakers have some "stage fright." They know the feelings of anxiety will pass as soon as they`ve engaged the audience. Your butterflies should fly away as well.

Know your audience. Find out as much as you can about the group you`ll be addressing. Tailor your message to their needs, not to yours.

If you`re going to discuss preventive dentistry for children with a PTA group, here are some things you might want to know in advance about your audience: Will both fathers and mothers attend? What is the economic level of the average parent? What is their dental I.Q.? Ask the person who invited you to speak for ideas that will interest the group.

Be prepared. Nothing will ruin a presentation more than the perception that the speaker was unprepared. Not only will the audience feel deprived and possibly insulted, but that anxiety you felt will probably not disappear.

You`ll be delivering an unprepared presentation poorly. Everyone, including you, will know it. So do your homework. Know your material well so you can ad lib and answer questions without hesitation.

Never read your speech. Do you enjoy watching and listening to a speaker read a speech? Probably not. Even though you`re standing before a group, your goal is to make each person feel as if you`re talking directly to him or her personally. When you read a speech, or rely too heavily on your notes, you`re excluding the individual.

Establish rapport with your audience immediately. Use humor if appropriate and only if you know how to be funny. Absolutely never use controversial humor. Humor is dangerous because its use could set the wrong tone for your message and alienate your audience.

Use anecdotes whenever you can. People relate to anecdotes and personal stories. You`ll keep their interest longer, especially if your topic is academic or serious.

Always be sure your presentation has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning must be a strong attention-getter. You want your audience to like you, to be interested in what you are going to say, and to be motivated to listen. Keep the middle on track and close with comments that summarize or emphasize your key points.

And don?t forget to stop when you?ve said what you?ve come to say. Don?t dilute your message by continuing to ramble on.

A polished image enhances the message

Dress appropriately. If given a choice between dressing professionally or casually, it?s usually better to dress more formally. You?re the expert and people will expect you to look the part.

Look around the entire room and make eye contact. You?ll find you?ll feel more relaxed. It will also feel to you as if you?re having a series of one-to-one conversations.

Avoid distributing literature at the beginning of your presentation. People will be distracted, and they will stop listening to you.

Keep your audience?s attention by watching their reactions. If possible, modify your presentation if you notice people losing interest.

Know your idiosyncrasies. Be aware of distracting habits you may have such as keeping your hands in your pocket, jingling pocket change, leaning on the lectern, grasping pens, playing with your hair, keeping your arms folded across your chest, and shuffling papers.

Keep your notes to a minimum. Use index cards if you must, but don?t write out your speech. Just jot down some key comments and important points that you don?t want to forget. Slide the cards inconspicuously.

Use your voice effectively. Make a serious attempt to project your voice, vary your inflections so you don?t speak in a monotone, and talk at a pace that is neither too fast nor too slow.

Use gestures. The best way to avoid the above mentioned distracting habits is to practice speaking while using gestures. The use of gestures is natural. It looks unnatural when a speaker tries to avoid using them. Just make sure your gestures and facial expressions parallel what you are saying.

Begin to practice these tips at professional and staff meetings. Take every opportunity available to you to express your opinions in a public forum. If no one invites you to be a guest speaker, offer your services. As you become more experienced, you?ll develop more self-confidence, and prospective patients will be attracted to you. You?ll also garner more respect from your colleagues and staff as well. Once you?ve become a competent public speaker, you?ll find it difficult to understand why you avoided this practice-building technique.

Judith Errichetti Sulik, RDH, is based in Bridgeport, Conn. She has written previously for RDH and has been published in The Toastmaster.