A little over a year ago, I decided I wanted to do some public speaking. I had just done my first big appearance on a panel at SHRM National. I had built up a strong presence online, I had a good network of people and I had a message I wanted to share with people.
I set a goal: I’m going to speak at twelve events this year. My first event was a small one in October of 2009. 12 months, 12 events.
Today is number 14 and my last for the year.
It wasn’t easy. I had some insignificant experience in public speaking, mainly to groups of a dozen or less. I didn’t know what my style was so I tried different things. I forced confidence, smiles and eye contact. I cut down slides (or expanded slides). I eliminated them completely for four of my presentations. I got really bad feedback on one presentation. I got screwed by a conference organizer. But I’m glad I did it because I learned some great lessons along the way.
Throwing yourself into it
I threw myself into speaking because I knew it was the only way I was going to book 12 speaking engagements. I also had an aversion to speaking and I wanted to see if it was just a confidence/skill thing or if it was just something I didn’t enjoy. I thought that was the only fair way to look at it.
So I dived in. The first ones were fine because I over-prepared. No such thing you may say? I could have been mistaken for a robot. A fast talking robot.
One of the middle ones was a complete bomb. I’m fortunate that it was for a smaller organization, a non-local organization and that it only happened once. Do you think you’ve lost the audience when a person in the front row says something like, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing up there” so you can hear it?
After that, I started to get slowly better. Rehashing a video of my presentation or listening to the audio of a presentation I gave helped a bunch after I got over how stupid I looked and sounded. I started figuring out how much it made a difference when I was comfortable and enjoyed the subject matter.
I’m sure there are some studies out there that say something but the crowd matters. Sure, the size matters (I talked to groups from 30 to 300 during the last year) but the biggest difference maker was having 8–12 really engaged people in your audience. People who had interesting questions or stories of their own or people that simply gave you the attentiveness you crave as a speaker.
I had a group of almost 100 people that didn’t have that many people in the audience and I had my smallest group have almost everybody in that group. Which one would I have rather spoke at?
The impact of stories
What I found out was how much better my presentations were when I went off script and told stories. Stories about failed business ventures or successful ones. Funny stories or sad stories. It didn’t matter. When I had a story I could tell authentically, it worked. People listened. And I used those to interconnect with my overall story.
It made a huge difference. I used a quarter of the slides I usually did. People weren’t falling asleep. People would ask me questions.
And what I realized is that’s what I’ve been doing on this blog. Telling my story or telling other people’s stories is what makes this blog accessible. It’s what I was already good at.
Translating the message going forward
Going from a text based conversation to an engaging and interactive speaking gig is a major challenge and I found that most of the time, my message was lost because I was focused on hitting my goal rather than figuring out what speaking venues and styles made the most sense for me. While I don’t imagine I’m going to stop speaking, I’m going to be selective about the venues, styles and content I choose going forward.
I know this is old news to some speaking veterans out there but for those pros who are looking to get into it, I hope this helps when you’re considering speaking. I wouldn’t change the way I did it at all because even though I knew most of this coming into it, I didn’t realize how big of deal some of these “little things” could be.