Less than 10 seconds into his first speech before an audience, Matt Abrahams ripped his pants.
Competing in a speech tournament as a sophomore in high school, he attempted to demonstrate a karate kick.
“I was so nervous about possible outcomes before my speech that I forgot to change my pants into ones that would allow for movement,” he said with a laugh.
Despite the rough start, the Los Altos resident’s first experience didn’t deter him from mastering the art of public speaking.
Abrahams, now a communication instructor at Stanford University and a speech communication instructor at De Anza College, wrote a book about public speaking, “Speaking Up Without Freaking Out: 35 Techniques for Confident, Calm, and Competent Presenting” (Kendall Hunt, 2012), aimed at helping people control their anxiety before – and while – addressing a crowd.
“I wrote the book out of frustration,” he said. “There was so much research that had been done about anxiety and public speaking, but it was all locked away in academic journals that people don’t really get to see.”
Abrahams started off in the tech industry, never thinking he would end up as a communications teacher. But the experience he gained working as a businessman helped him realize the importance of communication.
“You saw really talented, bright people not succeeding because of their lack of communication skills,” he said. “And you saw people who weren’t succeeding.”
Abraham said people will sometimes build their entire lives around their fear of public speaking.
“A lot of people feel powerless in the face of anxiety,” he said. “They get nervous about being nervous, and it spirals out of control. It helps people just to have a sense of agency.”
Although Abrahams is a confident, experienced speaker, he said he still employs various tactics to manage his pre-speech anxiety. Before a speech, you might find him backstage, quietly muttering tongue twisters.
His favorite: “I slit a sheet, a sheet I slit, and on that slitted sheet I sit.”
“You can’t say a tongue twister without being in the present moment,” Abrahams said. “Also, it makes me focus even more because if I mess up, I say a bad word.”
Although most of Abrahams’ students are college age or older, he volunteers at his son’s elementary school, Covington, introducing public speaking at an early age.
“The stakes are different, the consequences are different, but the anxiety is the same,” he said of students’ burgeoning public-speaking assignments.
According to Abrahams, an increasing number of schools are catching on to the importance of developing public-speaking skills early.
“The schools are doing such a good job of getting kids up there and presenting,” he said. “I think I’ll be out of a job soon.”