CNN's Richard Quest hates public speaking, despite three decades in broadcasting
He decided to face his fear through a RADA course on public speaking
After so many years broadcasting Quest was skeptical he could learn much
Quest was tactfully told he was too "full on" and "less is more" -- and he listened
I hate public speaking. Or to be more precise, I don’t like speaking to an audience sitting in front of me that I can see in real life. I don’t mind once I am going, but waiting in the wings to go on is dreadful.
For someone who has spent the best part of three decades broadcasting in some shape or form, you might have thought this would be something of a handicap. My career involves speaking to large numbers of people, but here is the point: On television and radio, I can’t see you.
If you don’t like what I am saying, well, I am sorry but at least I don’t have to witness the grimace, the yawn or the shake of the head before you switch off. It sounds so obvious but it makes a huge difference.
So when I saw the poster on the London tube advertising the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) course on public speaking for business leaders I thought to myself: “This is for me.”
I did wonder what they would be able to teach me. After all, I have been doing this sort of stuff for quite some time. I was quite skeptical that they had any tricks which this old dog could use.
What I was not prepared for was the wholesale rethinking of how I go about my breathing, thinking, and ultimately delivery.
It can be described in one phrase: “Diaphragmatic breathing!” Most broadcasters speak and breathe from the throat. We have a microphone to help us. So we never learn the art of the actor or opera singer which is to: Project to the Audience in the Upper Balcony.
In the world of seemingly unlimited broadcasting it puts our throats under terrible strain because we don’t do it properly. Ask any of my colleagues doing hour after hour of breaking news. Eventually our voices become hoarse and give out.
RADA was going to put that right.
I started off with a whole load of exercises, the purpose of which seemed obscure. Wiggling hips, shrugging the shoulders, stretching the neck, running my tongue around my teeth and then saying the months of the year with a cork in my mouth. Apparently it’s all designed to open up the throat and allow the sound to flow from the vocal chords.
Then the breathing. From deep down below, right to the bottom of the belly, to allow the air to carry the sound out of my mouth. It seemed to work. According to those who listened, my voice sounded richer and more rounded, less raspy and desperate. I didn’t gasp for air. I was delighted.
Then we moved onto presentation style and content. I have been told I sound like gargling with broken glass, although I can’t hear that. I know I am loud when I speak – probably 8 on a scale of ten.
Tactfully I was told I was too “full on,” and that “less is more.” I needed to be more aware in my style, less thrusting into the audience’s face.
And suddenly I felt truly out of my comfort zone. This was feeding my insecurities. So I rebelled.
I had tried it out a few times while presenting Quest Means Business and the results were uncomfortably bad. I was so busy trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing, I would forget what I was supposed to be saying and what came next.
Of course, I was trying to run before I could walk. Claire, my RADA guide, gently reminded me that it takes time to get this right and that I should not expect changes so quickly.
So, what did I learn from my RADA course?
Fifteen minutes of movement and breathing before I do a presentation works wonders. It both relaxes those parts of the body that are about to be used and prepares them for the onslaught ahead. And when it works it is wonderful. Psychologically I am much more relaxed before I speak because I feel I am ready.
I will never really like standing in front of a large audience, hoping they will like me (a therapist would have a field day with that comment) but at least I am no longer nervous to the point of going to the bathroom multiple times just to get away.
RADA – My throat thanks you for giving it the rest it deserves.
Are you afraid of public speaking? Or was it something you overcame? Share your experiences with CNN in the comments below the story.