Getting better at public speaking

“You should go see Kelly,” my friend advised me. He knew I was starting to do more public speaking, and that Kelly could improve my performance. As with most good advice, I knew it was right, and discarded it almost immediately. Until yesterday. “Kelly” is Kelly Kimball, a director, writer, acting coach (and more) who founded the Kimball Studio over 20 years ago. Now that I get paid to present at conferences and corporate events, it was time to see her.

I was a glossophobic

Like most people, I was afraid of speaking in public. The technical term, “glossophobia,” is from the Greek words for tongue and fear. I presented at work, of course, but my talks were like everyone else's, dull recitations laden with bullet points from the standard Powerpoint templates.

The thought of speaking at a public event filled me with dread. I had to do it once or twice when I wrote my first book in 1993, and I remember feeling grossly unprepared. That feeling compounded my anxiety, and I avoided public speaking altogether.

“Necessity is the mother of re-invention”

After almost getting laid off in 2008, I knew I had to do something to take control of my career, and began working on my skills, including public speaking. My preferred way to learn is by reading, so I dove in. Here are a few of the books that made a difference.

I began watching every TED talk so I could learn from a wide range of presentation styles. And I gave talk after talk after talk over the last eight years. After an event, I would often ask someone, “I’m trying to become a better speaker. What’s one thing I could do better?” Framing it that way assured them I would accept their constructive feedback as a gift.

Gradually, I got better. I grew to love speaking in front of an audience, whether it’s ten people, a hundred, or the 1,300 at a recent event. Now, I enjoy the preparation and find the connection with the audience exhilarating.

But I was still missing an obvious way to improve: watching myself.

When anxiety overwhelms common sense

I never recorded myself or watched the videos made at an event. It seems silly even to me that I could enjoy speaking in front of 1,000 people but would be afraid to watch my own performance. In preparing this post, I searched for information about this fear and found a discussion on a Social Anxiety Support site, where members explained why they were terrified to watch themselves on video:

“It’ll just confirm exactly what I think of myself…It’ll just confirm the worst.”

When I was preparing my own TEDx talk, my friend again advised me to see Kelly. We both knew that she could look at a few minutes of me speaking and make me better. But my anxiety once again overwhelmed my common sense.

Since then, I’ve started my own company and have a growing number of paid speaking engagements, including several this November. Public speaking is no longer a hobby or “nice-to-have” for me. It has become one of the ways I make a living, and I owe it to my clients and to myself to keep improving. So I asked Kelly if I could see her.

A master of the craft

We met at her studio. There was a group of actors doing a reading in another room. We sat in front of a small stage.

Beforehand, I had sent her a link to the TEDx talk and to a recent interview, and gave her a recording of a talk at a corporate event. She had analyzed each of them and began by listing what I was doing well. She noticed small things I wasn’t even aware of myself.

When she talked about things to work on, she demonstrated the behavior, why an alternative might be better, and how I might practice it. Things like how and where I walked across the stage. Where I focused my gaze. Facial tics. Synchronizing my movement and my words. How to use my breath at key points. Then she asked me - nightmare of nightmares - to step on stage and deliver a section of my talk. By this time though, I was so eager for her opinions that I hopped on stage and performed - and listened.

She made the improvements so simple and accessible, and delivered her advice with such humor, grace, and charm, that I was enrapt. We spent an hour together, and I compiled a long list of notes.

“Kelly is a genius,” I told my friend. She unlocked more of my potential, made me eager to do the work needed to improve, and inspired me to get better at other new skills, like on-air interviews and recording myself speaking to the camera.

Getting better requires an acknowledgement that you need help combined with the  willingness to be vulnerable so you can accept it. I struggled with vulnerability - “confirming the worst” - but my desire for improvement finally trumped my fears.

As we left the studio, I noticed a sign in Kelly's office, a reminder to "constantly challenge yourself." I think I'll hang one in my room too so, next time, I won't wait so long to take a step.

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Note: If you would like to contact me about speaking or conducting a workshop at your organization, just send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. The practice I describe and implement, Working Out Loud, helps organizations be more open and collaborative. It helps you be more effective while you access more possibilities and feel better each day. 

I greatly appreciate each and every request.

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