Thirteen Years

“That’s some Harry Potter kinda sh*t,” he blurted out.

I was in my university office, working with a local film critic on gestures and physical delivery during public speaking. He was contracted to do a regular speaking appearances on upcoming blockbuster films for a local news station, and he had confessed to me that he thought he looked stiff and wooden on-screen. During our quick session on relaxing and using the body, he told me incredulously that he had never seen someone quite so effortlessly explain and physically demonstrate a concept simultaneously.

I was flattered. Then, he asked The Question.

“How did you learn how to do all of this??”

You see, I get asked that question constantly, and I always dread it.  Not because I have a problem sharing the answer – I LOVE teaching others how to be better speakers (which was why I had invited this critic to my office in the first place) – but no one ever likes the answer to The Question.

Thirteen years.

That’s how I learned. That’s how I became an expert. Thirteen years of practice, coaching, research, revision, feedback, exploration, frustration, failures, and victories.

I embarked on my speaking odyssey when I was a sophomore in a small, rural high school. Despite a decade of dance performances on stage, I struggled with crippling stage fright when it came to standing up in front of others and using my words. Problematically, I also had a whole lot of things I wanted to say.

So, I joined the speech and debate team. There were only two of us – I was the “speech,” while my teammate was the “debate” (I did mention it was a small school).

For years, I was terrible. My time was spent losing in competitions. Watching coaches frown and shake their heads. Listening to teammates and judges and competitors nitpick and make suggestions and tear me apart and put me back together.

In those 3 years of high school competition, I never made it to a final round of a tournament. But slowly, I began to lose just a touch of the anxiety that plagued me whenever a saw rows of upturned faces, expectantly waiting for me to speak.

I competed for another 4 years in college, and then coached and taught for another five years after graduation. Slowly, sometime in between all those rounds of rehearsal and rewriting, I began to get better. Standing up became less terrifying. I haven’t (yet) completely lost those jitters that accompany presenting before a new audience (including teaching the first day of a new class…) but I do know how to prepare myself to minimize any chances of setbacks or failures. Here are the three most important lessons I learned through those years of trial and error.

  • Embrace your natural inclinations.

Competitive speech tournaments are run in different brackets – not unlike track and field competitions. Events are split into three categories: dramatic events (theatrical monologues and poetry); limited preparation events, that required the speaker to think on her feet and improvise a presentation; and traditional “platform” events (the standard informative or persuasive speeches you might be assigned in a public speaking classroom).

I desperately wanted to be good at the dramatic events. I loved watching others bring an immersive character to life. But I just was NOT good at it. I struggled with conveying enough vulnerability to effectively be seen as a different character. It went against my analytical nature. Yet, that very same snappy, analytical bent that made it difficult for me to inhabit another character made me a natural at impromptu speaking, a limited preparation event that involved on-the-fly interpretation and analysis. I could have struggled for years with interpretive events and gotten a fraction better – but instead I switched categories and became a national champion.

Understanding your own style of speaking is key to finding success as a presenter. Are you a low-key, conversational joker? Do you do best in your power suit with a solid 12 feet of space between you and your audience? Being realistic about your own strengths and weaknesses allows you to create speaking scenarios that capitalize on your best ideas and abilities.

  • Watch yourself.

Why are physical arts like yoga and ballet practiced in front of large mirrors? Why do football players review game tapes? Very few of us have enough bodily awareness to know exactly what we look like without actually watching ourselves.

Admittedly, watching yourself give an oral presentation on tape is usually about equal with marching down a hallway filled with thumbtacks on the list of “Things I Generally Enjoy,” but doing so even once makes a vast difference in your presentation skills. Most of us have some sort of physical or nervous quirk that we aren’t even aware of until we can observe it happening. For me, it was a tendency to twitch my left hand repeatedly while speaking. Coaches had pointed this out to me, but I failed to realize the extent of the problem until I watch a short clip of myself speaking.

Do you flush red on your chest and break out in hives? Do you sway from side to side or twist your shoulders? These are the sorts of minor, but distracting elements of a presentation that can easily be knocked out by seeing yourself in action. And hey – you might be pleasantly surprised by what a rock star you turn out to be!

Here’s your strategy of attack. Tape yourself once during the early stages of presentation, and make a plan for one or two of your most obvious delivery problems. Make notes on your manuscripts and keep working on your problem areas. Watch yourself just once more, a week or so before the big talk, and note your progress. And that’s it – just two taped viewings. You can do it!

  • Learn to love criticism

I once had a college professor who only referred to exams as “celebrations of knowledge.” It was contagious – we rolled our eyes at him every time until suddenly, all the students were casually referring to tests the same way.

Do a similar re-framing effort on the idea of criticism. Instead of fearing it, embrace it as the unique learning opportunity that it is! As a public speaker, you need criticism. You’re a houseplant and criticism is your water. Without it, you starve and shrivel.

I’ve heard some truly terrible things about my speeches over the years. It is, admittedly, unpleasant. But the unpleasantness is far outweighed by the insights that your peers, colleagues, clients, and audiences can offer you on making your presentations the best they can be.

There’s no substitute for grinding away at those skills that make you most nervous. But these tips can maybe shave a few months off that long journey.

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