Public speaking is one of my all time favorite ways of putting myself out there, sharing my stories and truth, building the like/know/trust factor and networking.
I’ve been fortunate to speak at conferences and in classrooms over the years on branding, marketing, design, and new media, as well as owning a small business.
Over the last 2 years I’ve changed directions with topics and spoken on self-awareness, personal branding, business lessons, success and failure, and creativity.
Generally speaking, things have gone well.
There have been occasions though where there have been some surprises that all helped me refine and get better.
Lack of preparation
One of my earlier experiences with things going off the rails was when I was part of a round table panel. I knew in advance it would be a panel and I took the lead and set aside time on our calendars prior to the session so we leaders could hash out the content and agenda based on the description we provided. For various reasons, those appointments were either ignored, unable to be met, or worthless.
This was the red flag that I ignored. I trusted my colleagues and thought, well, I’ll jot down my thoughts as it relates to this topic, so I’ll at least be prepared.
During the session we were sitting in the round and one of my colleagues just started talking. And without any agenda, and without a facilitator, pretty much never stopped. It went tangential within 10 minutes.
Our lack of leadership and lack of preparedness was reflected in the feedback. It was probably some of the worst feedback I’ve ever received. We did not deliver what we said we would and we let down a lot of potential clients. We missed the opportunity to be show up as leaders.
Another time I was in front of a group of women at a local women’s art college talking about self-awareness and after the talk, two things happened:
The first was all the younger college aged women high-tailed it. One slipped me a piece of paper and offered constructive criticism on my deck. Mmmm…OK.
The second thing that happened was a slew of older women, maybe late 40s, early 50s, approached me and wanted to talk. They really connected with my story.
When I read the feedback later, I wound up laughing out loud because the comments from the college women all relayed the same theme of having completely missing the point. I heard — Your story seems really sad. Or — I don’t understand how your stories were about self-awareness. Or — I really wanted a richer deck.
LOL. It fell completely flat on them.
Self Awareness, Confidence, and Getting Grounded
Another time I was totally unprepared for who showed up. Meaning, I do very well in front of 1000 strangers (they don’t know me and I have nothing to lose!) but the moment my friends are in the room, I am a wreck. I’m stuck in my head, afraid they are judging me.
This happened to me years ago and I was already 5 minutes into my presentation, rolling right along, and in walks a colleague, and someone who, at the time, I deeply admired, respected and wanted to be like. And I was knocked off kilter.
I remember feeling totally shocked, then pausing, then regrouping and frantically looking for the friendly face of a stranger and focusing on that person for the rest of the session. But the nerves that usually wear off in 10 minutes…they never left. I could not relax in front of my colleague.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
The first thing is understanding the goals of the conference or the session.
- What is the purpose of the said event?
- Do your preferred topics work within this theme and this space?
- What are other proposed session topics?
It needs to be a good fit.
Next, in relation to the purpose, who is actually attending? This is different from who the conference targets. You want to know who is actually registered from a demographic standpoint because these are the kinds of people who will show up to your talk.
Think of the following:
- Years of experience.
- How will your content be delivered?
- Is it just you? Is it a workshop format? A panel?
- What are the expectations and what do you need to be prepared to do or present?
- How long do you have to present? Be it the total block of time or your part.
Be crystal clear in your description. What is the theme? What will you discuss? How will it be delivered? What can audience members expect in terms of value? In terms of experience? In terms of take-aways.
Spend the time preparing your talk. If it’s just you, write out a script and practice it a lot. Bring it with you or write out key points on a notecard. Prepare a deck if it makes sense. Run through the script with the deck and time yourself.
If it’s you and others, plan ahead and get a few meetings on your calendar to hash out the details. You may not need a script but you will need a theme, key points to cover and a sense of flow. If possible, go through it as a team. Rehearse it. Time it.
In both cases, have someone you trust sit in and watch and offer feedback.
Know yourself too. Do you feel more comfortable in front of friends or strangers? In a small intimate room or a large room? What do you need in that room to make you feel at ease? What do you need to do prior to presenting to ground yourself?
When you get in the room, do a scan. Get a read of the room and ask a few questions to both break the ice and get a feel for who is in there.
Reiterate the your name and the name of the session or talk and give a brief overview of what you’ll cover and what they can expect.
Pass around a sign in sheet at this point too. If you have an offering, maybe a toolkit or a special discount on your services, allude to it here but wait until the end to make the offer.
Then do your thing!
I know now to make sure I do all these steps. I know to insist on meetings and prep with other speakers. I also research people to learn how they show up when they are “on” — Do they share the spotlight? Do they honor the process? Do they stick to a script or agenda? How do they treat their peers?
I know I love intimate workshops and I also love delivering a speech for a larger group. I prefer a script if the setting allows for it. Otherwise I prefer to trust myself and my story and just go off the bulleted agenda.
I still prefer strangers to people I know, but I also realized that our friends show up often times because they care and so we do not feel alone. It took a lot of work for me to get out of my own head and stand in that uncomfortable vulnerable place and trust that my friends and colleagues support me and care.
I also have more confidence in myself these days particularly around my story and truth so it’s easier for me to be “on” and vulnerable in front of people I know.
I have rituals I do before I go on and I have rituals I do after I finish.
While I didn’t discount all the feedback from the college women — I will be reworking my deck! — I know my ideal client is generally over the age of 35 with a lot of life experience. I ask that question up front all the time now.
I also know my personal red flags and when to bail if things are not lining up the way I need them to line up for me to feel good about presenting and delivering content in a way that honors me and lets me best serve others.
What about you? Any lessons learned from public speaking?