People outside my workplace probably don’t know that, about a decade ago, I developed a workshop on public speaking that I led for almost eight years. It focused on content selection and how to craft concise messages for busy executives to improve success in getting appropriate decisions made during a variety of encounters. The capstone activity involved each participant making a presentation, which was video recorded for later viewing and critique by the class. At that point, the butterflies would come out and most participants would display, if not admit to, a fear of speaking in front of others.
Like many in the education profession, I don’t get many butterflies speaking or leading workshops. That wasn’t always the case.
I happened across this article today: How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking. It reminded me how I used to get nervous, and of the many missteps I made along the way that became learning opportunities for me to do better in my next presentation. Here are a few early examples that still stand out in my mind:
- On my first day of graduate school, I joined a meeting where I met a group of students I would spend the next four years with. They asked me to describe the research I had done as an undergraduate and, impressing others, I gave what I learned after-the-fact was, “the difficult chalk talk.” Lesson learned: You don’t get nervous if you don’t feel you’re under pressure.
- I’d developed a reputation for appearing calm in presentations at school, despite knowing I was really very nervous. At one conference, I had two research presentations accepted. As I delivered the first, I could feel my mouth getting dry and I was sweating. I don’t think anyone knew I was nervous, and I drank a large glass of water before the second. As soon as I was introduced for the second presentation, I breathed deeply and then blurted out, “Okay, this is the presentation I really wanted to give.” Instantly everyone knew I was nervous and began looking for telltale signs. Lesson learned: Never let them know you are (or were) nervous. I tell my students, “Never let them see you sweat.”
- When interviewing for a job fresh out of grad school, I made a presentation before a group of some 15 scientists. I was interrupted with a question that I was more than prepared to answer, and I responded before the questioner had finished asking. It happened a second time later in my talk. On the way out of the room, I was congratulated by my future boss on a good presentation, but then counseled: “Tom, when the Laboratory Director asks a question, it’s really a good idea to let him finish before you answer.” Lessons learned: (1) Let genuine (non-leading, non-hostile) questions be completed before answering, and repeat the question; and (2) Know your audience and key decision-makers.
These are just three early examples, and I have many more in the 30 years that followed. Returning to the article on How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking, I realized I’d followed pretty much those steps precisely, plus a few that aren’t there.
- For one particularly high-level meeting I was presenting at, I arrived early and deliberately made eye contact with each person as he or she entered the room. It made eye contact that much easier later when I was making my presentation. That evolved into greeting participants at the door as they enter, an excellent practice whenever that’s possible.
- At that same high-level meeting, I put my foot in my mouth. I referred somewhat negatively to specific work being done at a particular government agency, not knowing a former executive within that agency was in my audience. I hadn’t learned my lesson and didn’t research my audience, despite the importance of this presentation. The executive was called out the moment I made my statement, but fortunately he chuckled and said I was probably right. Nonetheless, speakers should always know their audience when possible.
- Listening to others, I often hear people say things that just make no sense whatsoever. It’s clear they aren’t saying what they mean and either aren’t listening to themselves or choose to not correct themselves. Speakers should always listen to what they’re saying and correct any inaccuracies, or you will lose credibility with your audience.
- The only way anyone can get better at speaking in public is to do it again and again. The referenced article recommends using video to rehearse, but it’s even more important to assess your performance after each experience. Be critical of yourself, look for ways to improve, and ask trusted members of your audience for honest feedback. However you get that feedback, you must also be open to it and then make an action plan to try something different next time to improve. After all, insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting a different result.
Do you get nervous speaking in public? What do you do to mitigate your fears, or what did you do in the past to overcome those fears? I’d love to hear.
Thanks for reading
Images courtesy wikiHow – How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking.
This work by Tom Spiglanin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at tom.spiglanin.com.