Verbal victory: Prepping for your oral exams

Public Speaking Coach Megan Hamilton practises breathing as a means of self-calming. Breathing is an important aspect of preparation for exams, particularly for oral presentations. Submitted photo.

Vibrant orange, red and yellow leaves have gently cascaded from the autumn trees, snow is beginning to blanket and brighten, and that can only mean one thing: Exams are coming.

As your nervous system begins to ramp up in anticipation, you’ll probably find yourself having to deliver an oral presentation. These can count toward your final mark, and you’ll want to be able to show up and confidently bring it.

Whether it’s raising your hand in class, or defending your dissertation, there are times in your school career where your ability to speak up is critical.

But: Nearly every single person gets nervous when speaking in public. There are myriad reasons for this, but how you experience nervousness might include one or all of the following:

  • Sweaty. Palms, pits, feet, back, sweaty everything.
  • Shaky. A quivering voice akin to a sheep.
  • Soft. Quiet, inaudible volume.
  • Speedy. Lightning-paced rhythm.
  • Rosy. A hot, flushed face (blushing).
  • Fuzzy. A busy brain, an inability to focus or concentrate.
  • Wheezy. Shallow breathing or hyperventilation.

Those are just a few of the various ‘fight or flight’ responses. Luckily, it’s not as hard as you think to work through these frustrating, sometimes painful, symptoms.

First and foremost: breathe. Yup, breathe. Controlled breathing is the most effective way to calm those nerves, clear that brain fuzz, and get you back in the game for your presentation. When you control your breath, your body sends a signal to your brain that you’re not in danger, and it begins to reduce the cortisol levels in your blood stream. It’s honestly that simple.

How do you practise controlled breathing? Begin with your body. Using the principles of Alexander Technique, stand with your feet about a hip’s width apart and feel the soles of your feet melting into the ground. Unlock your knees, give yourself a slight pelvic tilt forward and bring your hip joints up and out of their sockets. From there, make sure your chest is pointed toward the ceiling, and feel your shoulder blades move slightly apart from each other as your shoulders relax and hang. Make sure your neck is free and easy, and feel the top of your head pull toward the ceiling. That’s an active stance that keeps you energized, forces you to take up space, and is the most physically beneficial way to stand.

So, now you know how to stand, here’s how you breathe: Imagine your rib cage is inflating like a balloon – expand left and right, front and back, top and bottom. Breathe in through your nose and out from your mouth, slowly, to a pattern. Here, I made a gif for you:! Try to follow the pattern for two minutes, twice a day, and especially ahead of a presentation (or a written exam). It automatically calms you down.

You’ve got yourself under a modicum of control, and now you’ll want to be able to speak in a clear and audible voice, with a measured pace, and crisp enunciation. Speak using your Optimum Pitch (the most resonant sound your voice can make), and use a handy tool called text mapping to organize your script. The main function of text mapping is to insert breath bars at every punctuation point. Take full breaths after every period, and ‘top up’ (more shallow) breaths at other punctuation points like commas and semi-colons. This allows you to control your breathing by deciding ahead of time when to inhale. It is incredibly effective to help maintain a steady pace, and deep breathing allows you to safely increase your volume as you consciously push breath out from your diaphragm.

Pro tip: Read three to seven words ahead of what you’re speaking. That way, at any given point, when you’re reading to a crowd, you’ve got a buffer of several words that you can look up and speak directly to people. That allows for connection, which audience members respond to, allowing them to better retain what you’re saying.

My final advice is this: Nothing works unless you commit. Decide ahead of time to practise as many times per day as possible. Practise reading your school work out loud to keep your speaking skills in shape. Practise controlled breathing using the gif (save it to your phone’s home screen). Practise Alexander Technique in your daily life. Find ways to build these tools into your existing patterns so that you can take up space and speak up any time you want. You’ve got this!

Megan Hamilton is a musician and a Public Speaking coach with her company ubu skills in Kingston, Ontario. She has worked with hundreds of clients across Canada both 1:1 and in group workshops. For more tips and tricks, or to get a copy of her FREE public speaking guide HOW TO GET WHAT YOU WANT: The 4 Key Elements to Move Past Fear and Speak Up in Any Situation, visit her website:
(Photo by Dust & Breath by Melissa Howlett)

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