Confessions of a public speaker

The universe, it seems to me, is a teacher with a perverse sense of humor. The latest evidence I have of this is my most recent presentation in Germany.

The day started off well enough. I rehearsed my talk, had a fine breakfast, and caught my taxi on time. I remember smiling to myself at my good planning. 

The first hint of trouble was when the driver asked, “North or South?” I had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained that it was a big conference center and there were multiple entrances. Since we were ensnared in traffic, and I could see signs for the North Entrance, I told him I would get out there.

The instant I stepped onto the curb, I knew I’d made a mistake. There were no signs for the event, no crowds. I walked the hundred yards or so to the door and asked a lone attendant for help. “Ah, that’s the South entrance,” she said cheerfully, and told me how to get there. “Just five minutes,” she assured me.

I started walking, looking up at the bright blue sky, squinting at the sun. It was starting to get hot. Then I looked down and noticed a white splat on my shoe. How did a bird do that? I wondered. On closer inspection, though, it wasn’t a bird’s doing. It was fresh paint. And it wasn’t just on my shoe.

There’s paint on the bottom of my pant leg, on the back of my other shoe, and on my other pant leg. I consider going back to the hotel and changing but I’m afraid it’ll take too long. I assess the damage, hope it might not be noticeable on stage, and head towards the South entrance.

Ten minutes later, I’m wandering around in a park of some kind. When I turn right as instructed, I’m at a highway on-ramp. By this time the sweat is dripping down my face and neck. I take off my jacket, and notice there’s paint on my thigh now too, spreading like a rash across my blue suit. Where is it coming from?! I frantically look for a source, and see wet paint on the straps dangling from my backpack.

I begin to panic. Gingerly holding my bag at arms length, I check and recheck Google maps as I walk, and I eventually find the elusive entrance. It’s now a full 30 minutes after exiting the cab. Wet from perspiration and paint-speckled like a robin’s egg, I’m eager to get to a sink and clean up as best I can. Perhaps no one will notice, I think. 

On my way to the restroom, I see someone I haven’t seen for a year. “John!” he shouts out, smiling broadly. He extends his hand, and then leans in close to me and whispers, “You have something on your trousers.” I smile a frozen, awkward smile, and quickly move on. I curse to myself and look heavenward.

In the crowded mens room, I mop myself up with wet paper towels, Then I take off my shoes and scrub each one. Don’t touch the pants! Don’t touch the pants! I keep repeating to myself, imagining how much worse large cloudy white swirls will look on stage. 

At this point, I’ve done all I can do, and it’s getting close to the time for my talk. I head towards the stage. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about what happened that day is that, details aside, it wasn’t so extraordinary. In the past year, I’ve prepared a workshop for hundreds of people only to have 8 show up. At the end of one long conference day, I had to compete with alcohol and food for a crowd’s attention, and lost badly. I’ve experienced a cornucopia of devious problems with slides, room configurations, and technology - and now paint. 

What’s the universe trying to teach me with all of this?

I think the point is that it’s all part of the practice. Not the practice of becoming a better speaker, but the practice of accepting anything that might happen in work and life. All you can do is work on your craft as best you can, focus on offering your gift instead of focusing on the outcome, and try your best to embrace the universe’s lessons with humility and a sense of humor.

***

Note: This post is inspired in part by a funny, insightful, and practical book of the same name by Scott Berkun. I’m grateful to Scott for sharing his own lessons, as they helped me.











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.

***

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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The kid who wouldn’t talk on the phone

It was back in the day when AT&T owned the phone on your wall. When you didn’t have to dial an area code. When phone numbers began with words instead of numbers. Ours was TAlmadge 8-9635. I can still remember my mother holding out that phone every so often, urging me to say hello to some relative. “Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!”

I was petrified.

Hurry up Johnny! They're waiting!

40 years later

Over the ensuing decades, I learned to talk on the phone and in meetings, but speaking in front of a public audience was still terrifying. Yet I knew I had to get better.

So in 2010, at age 46, I decided to apply to present at a conference, the Web 2.0 Expo. As soon as I decided, I was already nervous. I procrastinated for weeks, submitting the application ten minutes before the midnight deadline. Once I learned I was accepted, I was anxious for months before the conference. The day of my talk, sick to my stomach, I walked around the block over and over in an attempt to steady my nerves.

In the following years, I read books like Presentation Zen, Resonate, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. I watched hundreds of TED talks. I would ask people after one of my presentations, “What’s one thing I could have done better?” And I spoke and I spoke and I spoke to different kinds of audiences in different kinds of places.

The small steps I took, practiced over time with feedback and peer support, helped me become a better storyteller.

Now

Recently, someone told me I was a “natural speaker.” That was nice of them, but I know it’s not true. Like any other skill, I was pretty awful at first and I’m just gradually getting better.

Next year, I have a range of new skills I need to develop. For months, for example, people have been telling me that I need to make audio and video recordings. But I’m petrified. It feels like my mother is handing me the phone again: Go ahead, Johnny! They’re waiting!

Now, though, I know that the fear I feel is a natural part of learning something new. I could defuse the fear by avoiding the new thing, by not growing, or I could do something to get better.

This morning, I chose to take a step, and I bought a microphone to make my first recordings.

Hello? It’s me. 

Hello? It's me.