On Public Speaking

Yesterday, I gave a presentation for a group assignment in my Master’s class. It was exhilarating and a whole lot of fun, despite (or perhaps because) of the fact that we had overrun our stipulated time and I had to go really quick, determining what could be skipped and what could not on the fly.

I’ve been told before that I can speak pretty well in front of groups. That doesn’t mean that I speak well in front of groups all the time – just that I can. In general, though, I think I get more hits than misses despite the occasional public speaking duds.

But it wasn’t always this way. I used to be quite the nervous wreck at speaking (and not just in public!)

Two Years at Study Group

The first of June marked my two-year anniversary at Study Group. I remember when I had just begun my role, I had to make lots of calls colleagues in the UK, Australia, and North America.

These calls, despite the audience of just one or two always scared me. I was uncomfortable, constantly nervous, and largely unsure of myself and what I needed to say. I suppose my status as a n00b didn’t help matters much. I remember writing scripts — yes, you read that right: scripts — to help me through these calls:

Hi, good morning [insert name here]. How are you?

[Wait for reply]

I’m good, thank you. So as mentioned in the e-mail, [insert name here] thought that it was worth the both of us having a chat on [purpose of call].

[Wait for reply]

And so it went.

I would have this script open in front of me, on my computer screen, while I talked, often following the script verbatim.

The notes

In the beginning, these scripts consisted of long paragraphs of text. It didn’t work very well. I would often get lost in the words and lose my train of thought. Sometimes I’d be unable to recover my position, skipping to where I thought I was at, only to realise at the end of the call that I skipped the most important points.

I improved this somewhat by breaking my scripts into bullet points. I also made it a point to internalise the “how are you / good, how about you?” introduction, which before moving to Study Group I had actually never used (it’s become second nature to me now).

Bullet points were good, but I was still occasionally getting lost in the text. So I started marking out text in different colours, fonts, and sizes. That worked really well, and so I stuck with it.

Problems arose when I started having to speak in meetings in which I had to present my findings. Sure, I could have read from a script, but it’d have looked ridiculous – who reads from a script during a meeting?

Scripts were still prepared, but I devoted more time to memorising them. During meetings I’d have very small print outs discretely tucked in between pages of my notebook; or, if using my notebook computer, I’d have the script open in a small window with font size so small only I could see it.

This worked well, but it wasn’t sustainable. How often could I rely on scripts? Unscheduled conversations were going to be had, and in fact had already been had; and in cases like these, where was I going to find a script? In the conversations that had already been had, I floundered.

Developing Expertise

Over time, as I grew into my role, I developed a greater understanding of the business and the areas in which I was expected to be an expert on.

I made an effort to anticipate questions and to anticipate what answers people expected me to have. With experience, I was far better able to understand what I needed to know and what I didn’t. My scripts turned into notes, no longer verbatim but summarised and taut.

As I participated in more calls and meetings, as well as the occasional conference (and watched more TED Talks!), I also developed a good feel for what it was like to be a good speaker. I took notice of how people presented, and made notes of what worked and what didn’t.

I started applying some of these things and experimenting.

Increasing Engagement

For a recent example, in one of my duds (a series of conference calls over the week during which I conducted distance training), I realised people weren’t really engaged but I wasn’t sure why.

That weekend, not quite fully recovered from the lack-of-engagement sadness, I had class. During class I watched as the lecturer taught, looking at how my classmates were responding, looking for clues as to what engaged people and what put them off. What I found was that the presentation of case studies, interesting case studies, were always high engagement moments, while explanations of theories were almost always low engagement moments.

Back at work, I wrote into my Evernote notes the to-dos for my next training calls: “More case studies; tie back to participant’s actual work. Build theories into case studies.”

In my next series of training calls, I did just that: I built in the theories I needed to teach into interesting and real-life case studies, and there was far more engagement and positive feedback.

No Notes

Back in the early days, while in school, I used to hold prepared notes in my hands while giving presentations. These were very much like my verbatim scripts I had in my early Study Group days (I suppose the scripts were just a natural extension of my presentation notes).

I remember my hand trembling with nervousness, with the piece of paper with my notes seemingly trembling even more – not sure if anyone noticed but I sure did.

These days though, I don’t use notes. It helps with the trembling: even if my hand does tremble, without a piece of paper it’s far less obvious. I also realised that without notes, the presentation goes far more conversational; it’s less a speech and more a “hey buddy, let me tell you what I know and you let me know what you think” conversation.

But to present without notes doesn’t mean you don’t prepare the notes. In all my presentations I always have copious amounts of notes, some mental some not, that give me direction as to what I want to say.

I always walk through the slides (if I’m using slides) and anticipate questions (I’m the expert so I better play the part). I make sure that anything I’m presenting I’m 100% sure. If I’m not sure of it, I make sure that I either (a) take it out, or (b) learn enough of it till I’m 100% sure.

The thing about presentations and public speaking is that if you’re sure of the material, nervousness often melts away into excitement and the only anxiousness you’ll face is anxiousness to get your message out.

When you’re sure of the material – no ums, no ahs – you’ll naturally feel confident, and with confidence your material will appear more convincing.

Don’t tell anyone I told you this but…

I suppose I should let you in on a little secret: sometimes I’m not entirely sure of my material despite spending hours researching the topic and “selling the ideas to myself”. Sometimes it’s just not possible.

But during these times, I still stick to the no ums no ahs rule. When you appear confident of your material, that’s often enough to pull off a very convincing presentation.

Skeptics often will wait till the end of the presentation to ask you the tough questions, because even if they were 100% sure of thinking the opposite of what you were talking about, your confidence would make them only 60% sure, enough to make them not oppose you then and there.

When they take their questions “offline” (i.e. after the presentation), it give you more time to think of a rebuttal if necessary. Even if you concede to their argument, it’s far less public and you have more time to think about lessening any negative impact.

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