Delivering presentations is becoming a greater aspect of many employment roles and interview processes. As someone with a mobility impairment, I often wondered if there was anything I could do to assist and improve my ability to present. On occasions, I’ve felt very self-conscious of my disability and my ability to project myself, which has sometimes had a detrimental impact. I’m guessing that there’s many people reading this who have felt the same on a previous occasion!
I recently met up with Luan De Burgh, founder of the de Burgh Group, a company that specialises in helping people to communicate and present more effectively. He has previously assisted many high profile public speakers including leading politicians, businesspeople and media figures. Luan kindly shares his top five tips for individuals with mobility impairments to help improve presentational and public speaking skills.
Self-perception is one of the most revealing and difficult areas to address, because most of us have our own idea of how we come across and that is usually different from how others perceive us.
The first thing that any public speaker needs to recognise is that it is very important to accept how you are perceived by others so that you can identify your strengths and areas for development. Most people will perceive a speaker using a mobility aid, such as a wheelchair, as being no different from anybody else with regard to delivery, they will simply (and subconsciously) accept that the speaker is not going to be using the same amount of body language as someone else who does not use a mobility item like a wheelchair.
However, it is all too easy for a speaker using a mobility aid to focus on this as a negative aspect, whereas they should simply not see this as a problem at all for the simple reason that it isn’t. Your audience, for the most part, wants you to do well, wants to hear what you have to say and is interested in you, not your wheelchair or mobility aid.
Negative self-perception has, in turn, a knock-on effect on self-confidence which is all important in public speaking. You need to focus on the positive aspects of your speech and not the fact that you have mobility impairments.
As mentioned above, your audience wants to be there and hear you and will want you to do well. In all likelihood you will have been asked to speak on a subject you know well and this too should be a focus for your confidence. Write down three reasons why your audience should listen to you and concentrate on those rather than any negative aspect.
Posture and comfort
This is, of course, an area which is very relevant to those with mobility impairments. If you are using a wheelchair or a mobility aid, no one is going to expect you be presenting in any other way than that which is comfortable for you. That is, by far and away, the most important thing to remember; quite simply, if you are not as comfortable as you can be then you will be creating excess tension in your body which will have a negative effect on your delivery.
It is certainly true that people use posture to achieve presence but there are other ways of doing this. Eye contact is extremely important. Make sure that you make an effective and meaningful connection with your audience; generally three or four full seconds per person at least and make sure that you don’t leave anyone out in smaller groups. Just believing in yourself, what you have to say and you’re right to be there, will add greatly to your presence. You must always remember that no one is expecting you to be anything other than who you are and do what you are able to do. If you are unable to make gestures do not worry about it but rather think about how you can colour your words with vocal variety.
Efficient respiratory function is the key to controlling nerves and supporting the voice. If your mobility impairment affects your inhalation or exhalation, similarly to posture, you need to ensure that you are doing what is best for you.
Try to breathe as deeply as possible, avoiding shallow upper chest breaths, as this will provide your body with the requisite amount of oxygen that it needs to keep you calm and power your thoughts through your voice in a public speaking situation.
If you suffer from extreme nerves, a good way to calm yourself down before speaking is to take three long and deep breaths as slowly as possible. Breathe in through your nose, on a slow mental count of about 6, and out through your mouth, on a slow mental count of 8, and pause between each cycle. Even a quick exercise such as this will help you to take control of your nerves and calm down.
Voice projection and variety
This is your main area to shine and really draw your audience in. If you are speaking to a small number of people in a reasonable sized room, you can rely on your own vocal projection. If you are speaking to a group of approximately 30 or more it would be a good idea to have some microphone projection to just give your voice a little boost. This is perfectly acceptable and normal for any speaker with this size of audience. You need to use as much vocal variety as possible, pace, pitch and pause.
• Pace: Make sure you do not speak too fast; aim for around 150 words per minute. If you are a naturally fast speaker this will seem unnaturally slow but to your audience it will be a good pace and will allow them to take in what you are saying.
• Pitch: Use as much tone and modulation in your voice as you can. Think of your voice as a piano keyboard with a good two octaves of notes at your disposal. The use of pitch will engage your audience and give you an effective way of emphasising your key points and signposting changes in thought to your audience.
• Pause: Use pause effectively to underline those messages you really want your audience to take away with them. As a rule, always pause at the end of a thought for around 3 seconds. You can pause in sentences (for example at commas) for around 2 seconds. The more you practice, the more confident you will become about knowing when to pause and for how long. You will be able to read your audience and judge.
The best exercise you can do for focussing your pace, pitch and pausing techniques is to read out loud every day for about two minutes. You can read any text you like (from a newspaper, a novel, a children’s story… anything) and make it sound as interesting as you can. Record yourself and listen back – you will soon begin to add variety to your voice by doing this!
By Luan de Burgh