speaking about speaking


One of the funny things I do for a living is speak in front of audiences.  This is a curious job, which peaks in the spring and fall, the busy time for health conferences.  I spoke last Friday at the Canadian Society for Hospital Pharmacists Banff Seminar, and I have five more scheduled talks until September (Pharmacists, Emergency Room Staff, Pharmacists, Rehabilitation Nurses and University Academics, in that order).  It is an honour for me to be asked to tell my stories.

It is also an odd line of work.  I’ve had speaking engagements when I was awash with cold fear right up until I stepped up to the microphone.  I could feel my heart beating in my throat, and it took a couple minutes of talking in a shrill voice until I actually found my groove and calmed down.  I vividly remember sitting in a pool of public speaking terror for sixteen hours crammed into an economy seat on a flight on my way to a consumer conference in Melbourne.  I’ve spent many a white-knuckled drive to a hotel, thinking:  why do I do this to myself?  (Note:  the fear has faded with time and practice, but I know it is always there lurking inside.  It keeps me on my toes).

These are my top ten truths about public speaking that I’ve gleaned over the years.  All of these lessons are hard-fought.  I’ve learned them from other speakers, watching TED Talks, and reading Presentation Zen.

1.  Yes I still get nervous.  It is good to have nerves.  I don’t want to sound like a scripted robot.  Nerves give you adrenaline which gives you energy.  This is good.

2.  Once I asked my eldest son, a musician – do you ever get anxious when you get up on stage?  He looked at me, totally dumbfounded and said, very slowly:  Mom, I don’t get anxious.  I am excited.  An epiphany – how you frame things is everything.  Your new public speaking mantra should be:  I am excited.  I am excited.  I am excited. This helps. A lot.

3.  Know thy audience is my biggest rule.  I never give a ‘canned’ speech.  I do my best to talk to organizers (or even better, potential audience members) so I understand where they are coming from – what are their challenges, what would they do if they had a magic wand, what would they say if they were me, what are the three key messages they want me to share?  Having this inside knowledge turns a lecture into a conversation.

4.  It is not about you.  Another lightbulb moment:  it isn’t about me;  it is about the message that I’m giving.  Nobody cares about if my hair is fuzzy or that I say ‘um’ too much or what I’m wearing.  And if you are passionate about your message, then, well, you can get excited about your talk (see #2) and share that passion with your audience.

5.  Rehearse with a timer.  If you ramble (as I do), be prepared to drop some speaking points as you go along.  I try never to go over time – otherwise I’m creeping into another speaker’s spot, and I think that’s kind of disrespectful.

6.  Accept and embrace the speaker you are.  I wish I could wander around the stage with a lapel mike without any speaking notes.  I can’t.   I like to stand behind the podium with my 16 point font notes in front of me.  Having the written word there gives me great comfort (even if I don’t look at them), and that’s ok.  Besides, I don’t read bullets off slides (see #8), and I’m a terrible memorizer, so I need my beloved notes.

7.   Watch for the ‘nodders’ in the audience.  These are the kind people who nod and encourage me to continue on.  I love those people.

8.  For the love of god, please don’t read bullets off of slides.  That means don’t put all your speaking notes up on the slides.  You are there to speak, not read.

9.  Come to think of it, don’t create a slide deck full of bullet points, either.  I use images and quotes and lots of white space, but that’s just my style – a few choice words or infographics would work too.  I truly think your slides should compliment your talk, not actually be your talk.

10.  Take some deep breaths.  I use my little meditation app before I leave for a presentation.  Andy, the Headspace narrator, calms me down.

Remember:  Everything’s going to be ok. You can do this.  (And it isn’t about you anyhow, silly).  Also:  Do the thing you are most afraid to do.  You aren’t doing anybody any favours by living life small.

Now go out there and tell your stories.  This is the only way the world is ever going to change.

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