Thursday, July 30, 2009

Publicly Speaking

One of the things I do while I'm in transition is to facilitate or chair meetings for HAPPEN, a networking organization in the Toronto area. The meetings are usually about 3 to 3-1/2 hours and include a keynoter speaker and new member introductions.

Whether it's facilitating or introducing new members, I've had many people come up and tell me what a great job I do and how easy it seems for me to do so. They say, "You're such an extrovert!"

It's interesting how people associate ease of speaking in public with extroversion. Speaking in public is also something most people fear more than death.

The truth is that I'm an introvert. I'm not the extreme type of introvert who's afraid to come out of a shell, just someone who won't dominate the conversation. In the Myers-Briggs model, I actually sit near the cusp of introversion-extroversion scale.

When I was young, I was terrified of reading a report in front of the class. My palms would sweat. My mouth would get dry. I'm pretty sure some part of me was trembling. Most of you can probably relate to these symptoms.

After I did my MBA, I had to do a presentation at a sales meeting for the company - to an audience of about 400. This was a big challenge!

However, I was lucky to develop a friendship with the owner of the company that did our meeting planning and audiovisuals and he was a terrific coach. We'd had training on doing presentations but, to have someone give you tips on how to relax in front of an audience or how to make eye contact so everyone in the audience feels engaged was invaluable.

The main thing is that speaking in front of an audience is largely a learned skill. Some people have natural talent for this. Others - introverts for example - can be trained to make a memorable presentation. Here are five important things I've learned.

1. Planning. Don't try to wing it. Work out or write a script to speak from and practice in front of a mirror or by talking into a voice recorder. I've found if I try to wing it when I'm cold calling I stumble or have troubles finding the right words. When I script it out and practice it, I become much smoother and, eventually, I'll have internalized the script so well I don't have to read the words and have a much easier time personalizing the script to the listener.

2. Believe in Your Material. You always will come across as passionate and persuasive when you really believe in what you are talking about (or selling). When you truly believe in what you talk about, it's much easier to express emotions that will help engage your audience so they share in your enthusiasm.

3. Connect with the Audience. One of the tips I got early in my career was to look around the room and make eye contact with a few people at different locations. Most people are comfortable speaking on a one-to-one basis with other people, so this technique diverts your focus from the size of the audience to a series of one-on-one conversations. By speaking to people in different parts of the roon, there's a bit of a "halo" effect. In other words, the people sitting near the person with whom you make eye contact have a sense of you making eye contact with them, and this is a powerful way of engaging your audience.

4. Be Yourself. If you're comfortable being as you are, you're more likely to come across as natural and genuine. More importantly, if you're being yourself, it's a lot less stressful than trying to be like someone else.

5. Modulate your voice. It's part of being yourself. when you speak, your voice naturally rises and falls in tone and volume. From the audience's perspective, it's a lot more interesting to listen to, and the changes in tone and volume help provide emphasis on certain points you want to communicate.

So, I hope you can see that it's really not that difficult to make a presentation to an audience. It's a matter of planning and practice.

And, if you still have that fear of public speaking, the best approach is to confront that fear and make an effort to get up in front of an audience. It may not be perfect the first time, but you'll be surprised at how quickly you can improve with practice and experience.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Volunteering Adds Value

I’ve heard the excuses many times.

“I don’t have the time.”
“I just can’t make that kind of commitment.”
“I don’t know what I can contribute”

However, volunteering can have tremendous payoffs at the personal and career level.

My exposure to volunteering came several years ago in the High Park area, where we had a crime problem. There was a public meeting with the police and our city councillors to get input from residents in the area and the councillor in my ward, Derwyn Shea, asked if anyone in the audience was interested in helping organize a Neighbourhood Watch program. Along with a half-dozen other, I introduced myself and said I didn’t know what I could do, but I had experience in marketing and advertising.

Next thing I knew, I was appointed chair of the Neighbourhood Watch program for West-end Toronto.

Over the next two years, our committee developed an active program to educate block captains in the area about crime prevention. We learned a lot about crime statistics and crime prevention from our police community liaison officer, who was a delight to work with.

We put on seminars each month and reviewed crime statistics and had speakers come in to inform the block captains about locks, vacation planning, burglar alarms etc. I also wrote a column every two weeks in the Villager, the local newspaper, so we could share what we learned with everyone in the community.

We got results. Break-ins declined – the biggest concern to people in the neighbourhood. Offsetting this was an increase in crack houses, but the Neighbourhood Watch program helped the police set up surveillance by getting individuals to share intelligence with the police and give them places to set up their surveillance teams.

During the period I was involved with Neighbourhood Watch, our children were 4 and 6. But they learned the value of volunteering.

Our daughter studied forensic technology at Sanford Fleming College. Before she began her program, she volunteered to work in the genetics lab my wife worked in as a way of getting experience.

That summer, she did not receive any cash compensation, but she demonstrated she was the highest performing among all the interns and was invited back the following summer with a fully paid internship.

She excelled in the DNA and lab portions of her program in both years and, on completion of her diploma, she was hired to work in the DNA lab at Hospital for Sick Children.

While the first summer as an unpaid intern was financially difficult for her, it paid dividends in getting paid jobs the following two summers in a prestigious research facility. The experience also paid off in her studies because she picked up knowledge that went far beyond the college curriculum.

Our son wanted to be a math teacher. He did a degree in computer science at Queens and a year at OISE to get his teaching degree.

The last two years of his undergrad program, Ross volunteered to work as a teaching assistant after his exams ended in April. He spent tow months working at his old high school and the next year went to another high school in the area.

While at OISE, he was sent out for his practicum to “difficult schools” such as Western Tech, but his experience from volunteering helped him a lot.

While many of his classmates had difficulty finding teaching jobs, Ross interviewed with Peel Board of Education and landed a job.

I remember he came back from the interview saying he didn’t think he’d done well. However, he got a call back from the Peel Board indicating they liked how he had volunteered and he was hired to teach Grade 10 and 12 math at Lorne Park Secondary, a very prestigious school in Mississauga.

Along the way in his job hunt, he had a couple of coaches to help. One of our neighbours was a retired superintendant from the Peel Board and the keyboard player in my band was a principal at another high school in southern Mississauga. The networking also contributed to his success.

This year, Ross was placed on the hire list for Toronto District School Board.

The message from these experiences is that:

Volunteering gives you an opportunity to gain experience in a field in which you have interest. For new Canadians, that can help overcome the “Canadian experience” issue. For others, it can be a helpful strategy if you are changing careers or industries.
Volunteering gives employers a low-risk opportunity to assess your abilities before making an offer.

These first two worked big-time for our son and daughter.

Volunteering gives you some positive experiences that help motivate you and help you maintain your enthusiasm while you are in transition. My volunteer work with HAPPEN helps keep my presentation skills sharp and it keeps me involved with people – both of which have helped me maintain a positive attitude in my job search.
Volunteering can also be an excellent way to develop a network. For example, serving on the board of a NFP organization brings you in contact with other like-minded business executives. Demonstrating your skills and developing such contacts with them can help you uncover job opportunities.

The first time I was laid off, I joined HAPPEN’s sister organization, EARN, in Toronto. At my first meeting, one of the members gave me advice I will never forget. He told me, “The best way to find work is to volunteer to work on one of the committees”. I joined the marketing committee and all eight of us got jobs within three months of each other.

By volunteering, you’ll feel more involved in the organization and the volunteer work you do looks good to a recruiter or potential employer because it speaks to teamwork and initiative.

Regardless of the organization, get out and volunteer your way to your next job.