The nod

Earlier this year, I had a chance to give one of the biggest, highest-pressure talks of my life. Going in, I was nervous, but overall I felt pretty good about it. The topic was interesting, the narrative arc of the story compelling, and I felt like I’d done enough “big talks” to be ready for this one.

Because this talk was filmed, there was a formal dress rehearsal for all of the speakers a few hours before we went on stage. This was a chance to iron out any bumps in the talks, get a final bit of feedback from the event organizers, and make sure that the talk took less than the allotted 10 minutes.

As I sat listening to the other speakers rehearse, I was reminded of my time as a high school wrestler, when I’d always be a bundle of nerves on the sidelines before the match. In a wrestling meet, the matches progress by weight class. I remember watching each of my teammates finish their matches and walk off the mat, and how I’d feel a huge pang of envy that they’d gotten it over with and my turn was yet to come.

The first speaker nailed her talk. So did the second one. On and on….Deep breath.

Finally I was up. I started, and though I made a few wrong turns and hit a couple of dead ends, it seemed like the talk was going fine. Then, two-thirds of the way in, one of the staff from the event team raised a sign saying I was out of time. My 10 minutes were up. I mumbled my way through the last few minutes, and walked off in a cold sweat.

What a moment to discover that timing myself reading the talk and timing myself actually speaking were two different things. It turns out that I speak about a third slower than I read. Great.

I had exactly 120 minutes to cut one third of my talk and re-learn the shortened version. In those two hours, it was as if that quiet voice in the back of my head, the insidious one that whispers “you are going to fail!” suddenly had a microphone and it was drowning out any clear thinking or sense that I could pull this off.

Thankfully, I had help. Friends and colleagues rushed to my side to sift through what should stay and what should go, and, after pacing and sweating and delivering my rewritten talk as many times as I could to an empty room, I stood in front of the audience and in front of the cameras to give the new talk.

That’s when I received a gift.

All the other speakers – the people who hadn’t made the mistake I had, the ones I was secretly jealous of – were in the audience in the front row. And as I looked out to them just before the cameras started rolling, they were a collective source of positive energy. As I started to speak, many of their faces lit up – they smiled, they nodded, they affirmed. This group that had seen me fail just two hours ago had clearly decided that they wanted to help me succeed. And so they morphed into a band of new friends who, with every nod and smile, rooted me on and communicated that I could do it.

It’s so easy to focus on the guy or gal at the front of the room, sweating under the lights. This is why it’s so easy to forget the real gifts we can deliver from any seat.

The opportunities to lead, to support, to encourage, to reinforce, and, yes, to cheer on – even with something as simple as a smile and a nod – those opportunities are everywhere, and they are (and we are) much more capable than we realize to help others shine.

(HT: Shooting an Elephant)

The wrong public speaking mistakes

Public speaking is neck-and-neck with fundraising on the list of things people consistently fear.

To avoid that fear we often choose to read to people rather than speak to them.  That is, we write down and recite prepared remarks.  If our goal is to get our words across, this approach is guaranteed to succeed.  Visually represented, if we read typed-up remarks we’re likely to say nearly 100% of the words we have written down.

Reading your speech

Of course people didn’t show up just to hear your words, they showed up to hear you.

Yes they want you to have done the heavy lifting of thinking about and synthesizing your remarks.  Yes they expect that you’ll practice what you’re going to say with trusted colleagues and friends before you speak to get it right.  So yes, prepare.

But also remember that you are so much more than the words you put on that page.  You are a human being and people are desperate for human connection.  They want to feel and experience what makes you tick and how your mind words.  They want to interact with you, even if you are up on stage and they are part of an audience.  And most of all, and easiest to forget, they want you to succeed.  They are good people and they want good things for you.  Also, if you succeed then they do to – they learn more, they have more fun, they get a glimpse of you.

The speech read head down, in a monotone, is nearly always devoid of human connection.  Air flows back into the room when the speech-reader looks up, smiles, and says even one extemporaneous remark – the smiles from the audience aren’t just because the remark was funny, it’s because they’re breathing a collective sigh of relief when they glimpse your humanity.

And that glimpse is missing when your attention turns from them to the piece of paper you’re holding in your hands.  That connection is lost.

The reason error avoidance (aka “reading what you wrote down”) feels like a reasonable tactic is because it masquerades as a way to ensure that we avoid failure.  But what do we mean by success?  Because we know that, when we all start out, it’s nearly impossible to overcome the terror of standing up on a stage and ALSO get our point across without some help from our notes.  But the decision we can make is to recognize that someday we want to break free, someday we want to speak to people not read to them, someday we want to feel comfortable and maybe even a little bit happy up in front of people telling them our story.

Conceptually, we can break free a bit by asking ourselves whether quadrant 3 really is better than quadrant 2: that is, is standing up reading something we could have handed out actually better than saying a small fraction of what we thought we meant to say but making a real human connection?

Four quadrants of public speaking

Before you answer, you might remind yourself that the audience is at the edge of their seats, wanting you to succeed.

I’d trade error avoidance for human connection any day. Especially since I know that when you speak from the heart, you’ll speak your truth.

 

The next day test

I gave a speech the other day that was fine.  I said what I wanted to say, made the points that I wanted to make.

But fine, I fear, is forgotten.  Fine isn’t remembered when a person walks out of the room.  Fine is checking the box.

I think I went wrong in the preparation: spending so much time focusing on what I wanted to say, while forgetting to think about what I wanted to happen: what I wanted the audience members to do, to feel, to remember, to repeat to the next person.  And not just 5 minutes later, but the next day or the next week.

People don’t remember lists and plans.  They remember the narrative, especially a narrative in which they are the central actor, and it’s clear what action they are meant to take.  They also remember what they can feel: a personal connection, humor, a spark, even an image.

“What am I going to say?” or “What points am I trying to get across?” seem like the right questions to ask when drafting a speech.

But “What do I want someone to remember?” and “What do I want someone to do?” are much more important.

Next time…

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