Growing up, public speaking was never my forte. I hated standing up in front of large groups of people at church or presenting a report to the class in school. I even hated having to recite orders for a group of people at the fast food drive-thru. I didn’t like how I sounded, and I was always afraid I would say the wrong thing and make a fool of myself. Unsurprisingly, public speaking and presentation skills were not among my strengths during my early years in the workforce.
Jump Out of Your Comfort Zone With Both Feet
As a technology consultant, the ability to articulate ideas and concepts is crucial to leading technical discussions. However, standing in front of executives or large groups of people is different than standing in front of a whiteboard. That is where I struggled, but I knew it was where I needed to excel to continue growing professionally. Years earlier, I faced my fear of heights by taking up rock climbing and bungee jumping. Two and a half years ago it finally dawned on me that the only way I would get better at public speaking is by, once again, leaning into my fears and jumping out of my comfort zone with both feet.
It’s All About Repetition
Speaking in front of large groups of people used to terrify me. I remember standing in for my practice leader to give an update during our monthly, company-wide Fireside Chat a few years ago and it was 60 seconds of “deer in the headlights” (even with notes in hand). Joining a Toastmasters club changed that for me. I’ve learned many things about the art of speech craft over the past couple of years, but the most important thing I got out of it was repetition. Standing up in front of people over and over again. Making mistakes again and again. Learning from them. When I started, I experienced 30 seconds of terror at the beginning of a speech. Now I get past it by simply taking a deep breath. Repetition has helped me put all the things I used to think about while speaking into muscle memory and clear my mind of everything but connecting with my audience and getting my message across.
Lock It Into Muscle Memory
To me it was just like learning to throw a football. At first, nothing came naturally. I had to learn how to put my fingers on the laces, stand and stay balanced, where to hold the football, how to release it while turning my body and transferring my weight forward, how to finish a throw to improve my accuracy—that’s a lot of things to think about for something that only takes two seconds.
With repetition those things get locked into muscle memory and become automatic. Then the only thing you need to think about is where you want the ball to go. Public speaking is the same way. I had to learn how to stand confidently, make eye contact with members of the audience to connect with them, move naturally on the stage while speaking, stop fidgeting with my hands and use them only to make meaningful gestures that emphasize my words, and modify the volume, pitch, and pace of my speech to make it more expressive. That’s a lot to think about while you are speaking, but with repetition those things become habitual and automatic—leaving you free to focus on your audience and improvise when necessary.
I recently had the privilege of delivering a motivational “CREDtalk” during Fireside Chat. Seeing that many faces looking back at you is powerful (especially since the room has gotten a lot more crowded in the past few years), but it didn’t overwhelm me this time. I could enjoy making eye contact and connecting with different people, read their reactions, and know that my message was resonating with them. It was a thrilling experience.
Hard Work Beats Talent
Sure, there are gifted people to whom these things come naturally. Phenoms with canons for arms, able to throw 60-yard passes off their back feet. There are also people who are naturally confident in front of large groups, able to think, speak confidently and expressively without much effort or preparation at all. The rest of us must study and train hard to achieve excellence.
Personally, I have more confidence in students of the game, people who are passionate and tirelessly dedicated to their craft. In my experience, hard work beats talent every time. If you are willing to risk getting out of your comfort zone and put in the time and effort, you can not only become a competent speaker, but someday even a dynamic one. Practices such as CIS, Mobile, and IDS have each developed different programs for developing public speaking skills. There is also a new Speak Easy initiative open to the entire firm. So there are opportunities available to practice and improve in this area. Go make it happen!
If you know of other avenues for developing public speaking skills or specific recommendations to help prepare for public speaking, please leave them in the comments!