Saturday, February 2, 2013
This comes to us from award winning author and entrepreneur Peter Sims via the Harvard Business Review blog. Sims admits that in the beginning of his public speaker career he sucked - his words - something he's discovered is true of most great public speakers when they first started out. He's gotten much better at it by understanding the importance of speaking with passion, knowing the material cold and knowing his audience. With respect to the latter, Sims recounts a painful story from the beginning of his public speaking career in which he failed to pay enough attention to the needs of his audience and got the feedback to prove it. He learned through experience that devoting time to thinking about and trying to understand the needs of his audience allowed him to relax a bit and focus on connecting with them, rather than purvey information, which took his public speaking skills to the next level.
The best advice I ever received about going "from suck to non-suck" as a public speaker came from former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo visited Bowdoin College during my senior year, and I was the student assigned to show him around. Scott Hood, who led Bowdoin's communications office, and I picked the Governor up at the airport in Portland, Maine. Making conversation on the 40 minute drive back to Brunswick, I asked him how he'd become such a good public speaker.
He graciously shared the story about how he started speaking publicly in law school and was a terrible speaker until he started 1) talking about things he believed in passionately, and 2) knew his material extremely well. I now routinely share that advice today, with one addition: know your audience.
Since then, I've heard stories from some of the best speakers around, whether it's Daniel Pink or Malcolm Gladwell or Hillary Clinton, about how they all sucked when they started giving speeches. I know I did — despite getting Governor Cuomo's advice. (Remember what I said about advice being easy to ask for, and hard to implement? Yeah.)
My first paid speech, at the University of Cincinnati, completely bombed. Here is the actual email my speaking agent received after the speech, with names changed to protect identities.
. . . .
Ouch. Damn. That email stung for days, especially since it undermined my already-low confidence in my public speaking abilities right at the start of a big book tour. At first I responded defensively. I'd been going through a difficult time in my life! I did have doubts about the usefulness of my ideas to college students. Of course when I didn't know the answer to a question, I would turn it back around to the students and ask them! How was I supposed to know how they should manage college roommate conflicts?
But once I got past my initial reaction and defensiveness, I knew I had to take this feedback seriously because I had no perspective about how audiences would react to my messages or speaking style. What I learned over time was that, true to Mario Cuomo's advice, the more that I came to really understand my material, such that I got to the point where I wasn't actually thinking about what I was going to say, I started to better connect with audiences. I did use slides to help structure my comments to prevent me from wandering (a challenge I have without some structure), but I stopped putting notes in my slides, or trying to memorize what I was going to say and when. I relied on what was already in my head, and slowly, I got out of my head and into the moment and sharing the insights and learning. It was counterintuitive, but the more I was able to let go of my own ideas and expectations of what the audience wanted or needed, and instead, allowed myself to just improvise, my ratings went up steadily. And as it turned out, my own goofy sense of humor was actually a strength, not a weakness as I had previously thought.
As the audience came to see that I was just being me and trying to share and teach them, quirks and all, they stopped analyzing and judging me, and could just enjoy the moment. That's how I feel at least, noting how the energy in the audience now seems to shift about a quarter or a third of the way into each event. It's an experience for us all, not a lecture. When I can just be me, it gives the audience to just be themselves, and that human experience is what ultimately unlocks and empowers creativity, my ultimate goal. It has taken me thousands of hours of practice — and reams of hard-to-hear feedback — to improve. I'm not sure I've reached the "10,000 Hour Rule" drawn from psychologist Anders Ericsson's research, but I must be getting close.
Continue reading here.