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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

20 August 2008

Public speaking: an interview with Christee Gabour Atwood

Today's guest is writer Christee Gabour Atwood, who has had more jobs than I can list here and still have room for her interview. Among other things, she has been a radio and TV host, a corporate trainer, and an actress, giving her plenty of experience talking in front of people. Today she shares her secrets with us.

Thank you, Christee, for visiting my blog today to give us some hints about public speaking.

I’m thrilled to be here today, Shauna. You’re always such a kick to visit with. And I’ll do anything for a semicaptive audience, so I’m glad to be able to visit with your readers too!

At a talk you gave to the Southern Louisiana Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, you recommended trying out one¹s outfit before speaking in it. I ignored that advice once and discovered to my embarrassment that my new burgundy part-cashmere jacket turned my blouse pink with burgundy fuzz. Have others ignored your advice to their peril?

Well, let’s not even get into that Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. . . .

I’ve talked to people who have had buttons fly off, heels break, seams rip, and, yes, even a toupee mishap that one person recounted to me.

But I think the best story I’ve heard about a wardrobe problem was this woman who was wearing a big flowing skirt as she went up on stage. Her shoe caught on the skirt. She tripped, tearing the skirt and dropping and breaking the trophy that was being handed to her. She said it wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was an award for the best safety record in the plant.

What other advice do you have for choosing an outfit for speaking in?

Comfort! If you’re going to move around, write on a flip chart, or sit and visit with people, you don’t want to be hindered by your clothes.

I’ve worn tight stuff to try to look skinnier than I am—and then realized that I couldn’t breathe. Made for a long presentation . . . and people kept asking whether I was always that shade of blue.

Another thing is to recognize your tendencies and to dress accordingly.

If you know that you’re the type to play with your earrings, jingle the change in your pockets, or fidget with your buttons, wear something else.

If you’re going to be on television, you’ll also want to wear things that look good on camera. No busy designs that might “buzz” on the screen. Not too much white that could pale you out. Watch the show you’re going to be on to get ideas of what looks good.

You clearly enjoy talking in public. Are you nuts?

Hey, I was the youngest of six children. I’m trying to make up for those years of childhood when no one heard a word I said.

It’s funny, though. I really don’t like having people look at me. (Yeah, there are some issues here. . . .) But I have messages that I want to share with people. So, I talk. It’s about the message, not the messenger.

And I do love the gratification of seeing people’s faces when they “get it” or when they nod and smile that they have had similar situations. The feeling of connecting with a group of people is pretty phenomenal.

Public speaking is reputedly Americans' #1 fear, ahead of death. Do you have any tips for people who are afraid to speak in front of groups? How about for those afraid of dying?

If they have both issues, they should never do stand-up comedy. I did that—and dying in front of a group is the worst. Well, I imagine it is. Haven’t tried the other kind of dying. Although I did see a bright light at the end of a tunnel one time. It was the 11:15 Amtrak to Biloxi.

I digressed again, didn’t I? Did I mention that I have the attention span of a gnat?

If you’re afraid of speaking in front of groups, start with groups you’re comfortable with. Tell a joke for friends. Volunteer to teach something at a staff meeting—and stand up while you do it to get the feel of presenting. Talk to kids or volunteer to read at a library program.

If you’re afraid of dying, read Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Death doesn’t seem like such a bad prospect after that. (Please note that the opinion expressed here is the opinion of this author and in no way reflects the opinions of her college English professor, who thought this was the best book ever written.)

What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you while speaking in public?

Hmmm. There are so many to choose from.

But I think one of the outstanding moments was the time my rear end took over the show.

Yes, I had just spent the better part of an hour getting everything set up on this huge audiovisual cart with the computer and my interactive PowerPoint, etc.

A few hundred executives filed into the room. I was introduced and stepped up to the front of the room. The person leaving the stage was coming down in front, so I slipped behind the cart to get into position.

The cart, however, was very close to the wall with the outlet. As I slipped behind it, my ample rear end knocked the plug out of the wall and poof, there went the power. I tap danced (almost literally) till we got it going again.

After making it through that presentation, I went straight to sign up at the gym so I could make that rear end smaller.

What should one do with one's hands while giving a talk?

Whatever makes you comfortable. Yes, there’s a theme here. Because when you’re comfortable, your audience will be too.

Many of us in Louisiana would be mute if you forced us to hold our hands still. On the other hand, many folks aren’t comfortable with moving around like that. So, if you like using your hands to talk, by all means do! It creates a more exciting picture for your listeners. It lets you drive home the statements that you’re making. And it works off some of that nervous energy you’ve got while you’re in front of a group.

Just be careful not to fidget. I’ve seen people play with a pen until I wanted to go up there and snatch it from them. This, of course, is highly discouraged in most situations, so I have resisted. But what if your audience members don’t have the wonderful sense of restraint that I do?

If you’re going to use gestures, do them big or not at all. Gestures should be above the waist so they show up. They should be natural and not like those things the guys in car commercials do. We’ve all seen them do “Right on the corner (punch), Right on the price (punch)” and miss the punches.

Practice till the gestures are natural. And don’t use them because you feel you should. Use them because they feel right.

How do you recommend people go about preparing and rehearsing their talk?

Practice the parts of your talk. The chunks of information. Talk about them and get comfortable that you know them well enough to discuss the information without looking at your notes very often.

Then practice your transitions. How do you get from one point to another? Work at them until they feel natural.

Practice your intro and your ending over and over until you can do those in your sleep.

Now put it all together. Practice the whole thing in front of the mirror to discover habits that could be distracting.

Practice with friends and family. Practice with your dog or cat. Practice in the shower. Practice in your car, but just pretend that you’re on a speaker phone so people don’t worry about you.

And practice with your notes. Notes are not a crutch. They’re a GPS to keep you from getting diverted and not finding your way home. Just make sure that your notes are keywords, not a word-for-word script. No matter how good you are and how well you know your material, if you have the script in front of you, you’ll find yourself reading parts of it. And that’s when you lose your natural delivery style.

I suppose you get the idea now that I believe practicing and getting comfortable with your material is really important. If you do, then my work on this topic is done.

What functions does a rubber chicken serve when giving a talk? When you talk, that is, not the chicken.

A rubber chicken reminds you never to take yourself too seriously. I always have my miniature rubber chicken hanging out of my pocket when I talk. It makes me feel invincible, silly, and contagious.

And if someone says, “Do you know you have a rubber chicken hanging out of your pocket,” don’t hesitate. Say, “No, but if you hum a few bars. . . .”

Taking yourself lightly is just easier to do when you have a rubber chicken as an amulet.

Do you have any other advice for talking in public?

Do it. Do it lots. Practice it often. Turn around in elevators and say, “I suppose you’re wondering why I called this meeting.” Offer to explain things in meetings. Tell a joke to break tension in the office.

The more you speak in public, the easier it gets. And then your only problem will be trying to find new audiences so you don’t have to keep writing all new material.

Thanks again, Christee. It's always fun when you visit my blog.

Thank you, Shauna. I really enjoy myself here. Especially since I was supposed to be writing on my book today and would do anything to avoid getting to work. Oops! Hope my editor isn’t reading this. Really, Mark, I’m hard at work and ready for that deadline. . . .
Have a great one!
Christee & Elvis, the rubber chicken

You, too, Christee!

Christee Gabour Atwood has two Websites, and She also blogs at

Her book Three Feet Under: Journal of a Midlife Crisis is available at and at Barnes & Noble. Her business and training books are available at ASTD Press, and she’s looking for an agent and publisher for her latest humor book, In Celebration of Elastic Waistbands.


Charles Gramlich said...

Great interview. I'm still laughing about the "Safety Award" trip.

DeAnna Cameron said...

Great, great interview! I loved all the tips. You know I need them :0)

DeAnna Cameron said...

Great, great interview! I loved all the tips. You know I need them :0)

Michele said...

What fun tips! I'm still cracking up over the elevator one. :-)

When speaking in public, I can certainly use all the help I can get.

Thanks Shauna, Christee, and Elvis!


Rae Ann Parker said...

I can definitely use the tips. I'm trying to get more comfortable with speaking since I understand authors have to do it!

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, yeah, the safety award story was funny. It sounds like something I would do . . . except I'm so clumsy I'd never win a safety award in the first place.

DEANNA, MICHELE, and RAE ANN, I'm with you on needing to know more about speaking in public. Glad you found the tips helpful.

Lisa said...

One point that Christee makes without saying it is that having a good sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously go a long way toward relaxing your audience, and that relaxes you. Great interview!

Carleen Brice said...

Some publisher should snap her up!

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks, LISA, and good point. It seems many speakers at least start with a joke even if they are serious for the rest of the talk. CHRISTEE, if you're listening in, do you have any suggestions on finding appropriate jokes?

CARLEEN, I agree! Elastic waistbands are one of the most important elements I consider when choosing clothes and surely are of interest to a wide population.

Lana Gramlich said...

*LOL @ the safety award story!*
The more you speak in public, the easier it gets. I can personally attest to the fact that this is not always true. Fortunately these days I can & do opt OUT of any public speaking gigs.

Sidney said...

Good tips!

Unknown said...

Wow! You folks are so nice. I'd send you checks, but I'm a writer ... so they'd bounce.

As for where to find humor -- I can't tell a joke, so I count on observational humor. Thank goodness it's so easy to find!!

Like these examples:

Newspaper Headline: Blizzard Hits Four States. One is Missing.

Classified ad: Tired of cleaning yourself? Let me do it.

Bumper sticker: Jesus is coming. Everybody look busy.


Erma Bombeck: Seize the day. Remember those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.

Or even our own actions can make us laugh when we look at them more closely. Like the fact that I realized I use my exercise bike as a coat rack. And I think that Prozac and cheesecake serve pretty much the same purpose.

So I just carry a notebook with me at all times and make notes of everything from incorrectly spelled signs to unintentionally funny emails (like the one I got that said a woman was not going to be able to attend a training session and she was sorry for the "incontinence").

Once we start looking, we realize that jokes are just out there waiting for us to notice them. And they're free!

Thanks again for visiting with me,
Christee & Elvis

Steve Malley said...

Golldang it, and here I had my public-speaking outfit all picked out: black-and-yellow checkered suit two sizes too small, with my lucky eight dollars in small change jingling in my pockets!

Hafta rethink that...

Shauna Roberts said...

LANA, I think the trick for getting more comfortable the more you speak is to keep speaking. I know for myself, if I don't speak in public (or do something else scary) for a while, I lose the comfort level I had built up to and have to start from near scratch again.

SIDNEY, thanks for stopping by.

CHRISTEE, thanks for the extra tips.

STEVE, don't give up on that checkered suit too soon. You wouldn't need a rubber chicken if you wore that.

Farrah Rochon said...

Wonderful interview. Christee is as entertaining as always. The workshop she gave to SOLA was a huge help in helping me to calm my public speaking fears. I'm still not over it, but I'm getting better. :)