Op ed

The Graceful Fluttering of Butterflies by Gona Stanley

I have always been fascinated by both the written and spoken word. Garg (2003, p.1) in his book A Word A Day hit the nail on the head when he noted that “Well-used words cut through ambiguity and confusion like a sharp sword in the hands of an expert swordsman”. An apt description of the power of words I have long admired the eloquence of the great orators of our time. Words of wisdom flowing forth so effortlessly, mesmerizing the audience! On a personal note, I remember vividly my first “solo” presentation as a student in university. If memory serves me correctly, as part of the course requirements for Organization Theory and Design, each student was expected to give a short presentation on his/her term project. Up to that point in time, I had little experience when it came to speaking before an audience.My previous excursions to the stage were in the form of group presentations. After all, two (or more) heads are better than one and there is safety in numbers! You can imagine the butterflies in my stomach when the daunting task of speaking in public was laid on my lap.

The butterflies were unlike the creatures you usually see fluttering ever so gracefully. These gentle creatures had taken on a more sinister appearance, growing horns, fluttering wildly in my stomach, determined to wrest away from me the joy of public speaking! Needless to say, that first outing was a painful one for me and to this day I feel sorry for the assault on the ears of my professor and course mates.

On looking back now, I must say that I am thankful that this happened way back in my youth. Young people are amazingly resilient and after a couple of days licking my wounds and recovering from the above-mentioned near-doom experience

I wandered into the university library in search of a tome that would make public speaking a saner experience. I was amazed by the vast collection of books on the subject. If only I had spent more time in the library! Sometimes, pride (and I am speaking for myself) prevents us from seeking help, be it from literary sources or other mortals!

The fear of public speaking is very real. It has been known to paralyze the mind and body. Green (1999, p.77) observed that the three common fears are “the fear of Failure, the fear of Looking Foolish and the fear of Breakdown”. Vassallo (1993, p.15) noted that “Everyone gets butterflies in the stomach. The trick is to train them to fly in formation”. The literature is replete with suggestions on overcoming stage fright. I have found the following bits of advice particularly reassuring:

1. Prepare and rehearse. Adequate preparation is of utmost importance. Do not wing it! Have your notes with you. Rehearse several times to help you get used to the flow of your presentation. I have found that rehearsing prevents me from stumbling over the words!

2. You should be aware that in spite of exhaustive preparation and rehearsal, mistakes may occur. Do not panic! Should you trip over a word, pause, and smile and start the sentence again!

3. Think positively. Can you do it? Yes you can! The audience is on your side and wants you to do well! Your nervousness will recede as you progress through your presentation/speech.

4. Concentrate on your message. I find that this allays my nervousness.

5. Do not shy away from opportunities to speak in public. Gain experience! I know this is easier said than done. Experience will boost your level of confidence.

6. Dress appropriately yet comfortably. It is important for one to feel good!

7. Take a couple of slow deep breaths before you start your presentation/speech. This has a calming effect.

8. A good night’s sleep before your presentation works wonders. You will feel energized.

9. I limit my intake of coffee before a presentation. A cup will do. I find that too much coffee raises my anxiety level.

As we progress through life, we will encounter many occasions where we are called upon to “say a few words”. The inevitable should not be regarded with fear and dread. With adequate preparation and a positive frame of mind, you will be well on your way to experience the joy of public speaking!


Garg, Anu. 2003, A word a day: a romp through some of the most unusual and intriguing words in English, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.

Green, Gerald. 1999, The magic of public speaking, Gerald Green, Malaysia.

Vassallo, Wanda. 1993, Speaking with confidence: a guide for public speakers, Golden Books Centre Sdn Bhd, Malaysia


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