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Translating Your Story To Public Speaking

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.

Crowds 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.

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Addressing Your Fear: Public Speaking

I hate public speaking.

I know a few people that have told me in all honesty that they really love it. I have a feeling that these people have something wrong with them.

One of the first public speaking disasters I was a part of was in high school. We did this competition called We The People and the culmination was this event where you’re supposed to testify in a simulated congressional hearing. So here I am, a cocky 11th grader going up to Olympia to do this competition and I told my group that I would take our opening statement.

When it was our turn to present, I sat down and said “Good afternoon.” And that’s all I said for about 30 seconds. I just sat there sweating and blanking my lines over and over (that I had memorized by the way). The judges of the competition acknowledged my uncomfortableness and asked if I needed some notes. I grabbed them and slaughtered the opening and then sank back into my chair.

It was a humiliating experience (one that I am still razzed about from time to time).

I’ve improved since then and do some speaking engagements on occasion. While I wouldn’t want to do it full time, the opportunities I’ve had to speak professionally are generally enjoyable because of the pre and post speaking opportunities to network and grow. How can you improve your public speaking skills?

Know Your Subject Matter

Most of my time isn’t spent on the presentation itself but on the researching aspect of it. If you want to speak and give people something to take away from the presentation, you have to know the subject matter in and out. This has two side effects. For one, your presentation material is simply going to be better with that research. Secondly, your ability to talk naturally and off-the-cuff about the subject matter is going to improve dramatically with more research.

This isn’t college either so start weeks ahead of time.

Tell Stories

One of my favorite techniques to help a presentation run more smoothly is to tell stories during them. Stories are easy to remember for both you and the audience so you give them a takeaway right there. The other nice thing is that stories are easy to practice. I don’t need slides to practice telling stories. I can do it in front of my wife, family or even my cat. Repeating the story several times lets the delivery come off smooth and makes sure you get all of the detail in.

Take Every Opportunity to Speak

If I can speak somewhere, I will. If I turn down a speaking opportunity, it is because of cost of travel or because of a scheduling conflict. Sometimes I do very well, sometimes I … uh, don’t. It generally doesn’t matter in the long run as long as it isn’t an unmitigated disaster. Someone who does public speaking quite a bit told me to aim for ten speaking events per year. At the end of the year, regardless of how good or bad you did speaking, you will be significantly better, more consistent and more easily marketable.

Review Videos or Anonymous Written Reviews

Reviewing videos is PAINFUL but has actually helped me a bunch when I go to prepare for my next public speaking event. Watch it twice: once to get over how stupid you sound and twice to get down notes. And review the feedback from the people you are presenting to as well. Sure, some of it may not be related to the speaking but you can see how things like technical difficulties, room conditions and other uncontrollable aspects of the presentation can impact it. You can take steps to prevent that in the future.

How have you addressed your fear and improved your public speaking skills?