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.