SJ Harrison is a voice and performance coach for public speaking, helping highly skilled professionals turn anxiety into victory by teaching them performance techniques, enabling them to be appreciated for the highest results at work. With more than two decades of experience as an actor, playwright, and producer, Harrison’s work on holistic learning for performance has been published in academic journals. She’s coached hundreds of professionals from actors and poets to psychologists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
Harrison has three pieces of advice for anyone who would like to improve their public speaking performance:
“If you feel anxiety around public speaking, you’re in the majority!” As with any skill, the remedy for this is technique and practice. Both of these things help to address the underlying anxiety.
“Increasingly, people are expected to get up and perform with little or no training. Can you imagine expecting a musician to play in public after one class? This puts it into perspective, doesn’t it? We think that because we speak to people every day, we should be able to do this on a large scale, no problem. Public speaking is a performance, and we underestimate what it takes to perform successfully.”
Being told how to stand, making eye contact, and the do’s and don’ts of presentation are tips, not techniques. Tips are helpful but not transformative. “When you’re learning a new language, you expect to devote time to the process.” This is no different. Invest time in technique.
“Respect what a big deal it is to do this: when we stand up in front of our tribe, our community, our colleagues, we’re on display. You are your instrument, and you have a personal history with communication. Your psychology, physicality, and intellect all come into play. Tips tell you what to do with your body. Techniques demand deeper investigation and illuminate the connection between body, mind, and emotion. Working over for months with a coach, whether one-on-one or in a small group, can get you great results. The main thing is, there must be room for you to explore what’s holding you back as an individual and time to develop technical tools that work for you, specifically.”
Start with learning how to breathe for public speaking. “ Breath is the engine of the voice, and the voice is your primary communication instrument.”
“There are different types of breathing for different activities: meditation, exercise, singing – these are all different from breathing for speaking. Breathing correctly has a positive impact on your nervous system. Audiences respond physiologically to the breathing patterns of the performer. Actively engaging your breath will help you to engage your audience. When we start unlocking the physical voice, we unlock the psychological voice –our sense of agency and confidence can increase tenfold. Techniques that work are holistic, engaging the self on all levels to bring about a true transformation.”