A Key to Career Success: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking

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Apr 20, 2015

When I heard you speak I was shaking in my boots, because tomorrow, I am scheduled to speak after your presentation. Is there any way to put me on behind someone else?” he said jokingly.

I was asked about this change a few months back when I was the chair of the HR Summit in Bahrain. Just a few weeks ago, I made a presentation to The Human Resources Forum in Dubai (THRF), and as one of the attendees was leaving she said, “you make everything so clear and you are the best speaker that we have ever had here at the Forum.”

Since arriving here in the Middle East, I was fortunate to get on the HR speaker circuit. As of last week, I have spoken at about 25 events either as a keynote, conference chair, panel leader, or master class presenter. I have traveled from Africa to Turkey and all over the Middle East.

How I got over my fear of public speaking

What people see now is an accomplished speaker, roaming the stage without notes. But many years ago, I had near panic attacks when it came to public speaking.

I was a nervous wreck. I would literally turn down every opportunity to present before large audiences. And when I did accept, I could not sleep the night before. There were times when I just wanted to walk away. But I knew as my career progressed, that was a hurdle that I would have to get over.

So as luck would have it, I got a call one day about presenting at an HR forum in New York. All the HR big shots from around the metro area would show up to this event. The format: no PowerPoint. Build the narrative and tell the story was the guideline. So this was my kind of coming out party, albeit on stage.

So I turned on my prep routine every morning at the gym: I would go through my speech. That went on for 5-7 days per week for about seven weeks. To say that I was well prepared is a misnomer, but something different happened on my big day. On the morning of the event, I noticed that I was not nervous at all.

I could not wait to get up on that stage. When I got there, I faced the audience, took a deep breath, made eye contact around the room, and started in.

When I finished, I knew I had overcome my fear and I had found a calling. The internal feeling was indescribable.

The scariest thing most people face

Public speaking is by far the scariest thing that people face. As a matter of fact, fear of public speaking ranks higher than fear of death on the survey of what people fear most.

I counsel every young person in business that they must conquer this ability to speak in public. Matter of fact the higher you go up the ladder, the more this skill has to be conquered. There is even a name for this fear — glossophobia, which is the fear of public speaking or of speaking in general.

Some people do this with avoidance, like I did for so long. At work, they pass up promotions and assignments which would require speaking. This fear of public speaking may even lead people to choose a career that doesn’t call for public speaking, rather than one they want.

Others don’t go that far, but will go to great lengths to avoid making presentations, or even just having to speak at a meeting. They may deliberately arrive late at meetings, hoping to miss the customary introductions (“let’s go around and introduce ourselves…”).

However, the more successful you become in your career, the more you will be called upon to share your expertise with groups.

Being prepared is the key

One of the great “ah ha” moments for me was about being prepared, as in rehearsing and trying to remember a speech but being unprepared when it came to understanding the flow of the message.

When you watch great speakers, what you witness is a great story-teller. Great speakers will frame the message in the beginning, which is what I call the “hook.”  Once you do that, your job is to build the foundational narrative around that hook. A conversational style works best.

PowerPoint is the killer of public speaking because it allows you to have a crutch, something to look at to remember your “lines.” It keeps your eyes glued to the slide as opposed to the quick glance to get your bearing when you synthesize it for the audience.

The other speech killer is to begin reading from your prepared text, with your eyes cast downward, reading line for line. My response for that is to just hand the printed speech out and let people read it.

A few years back, a New York politician decided to run for a higher national office. The day of her speech was windy and as she approached the podium, a huge wind came along and blew her speech away.

She literally panicked as she tried to put the pages back in order. Incoherent rambling went on to a point that audience members were embarrassed. Her campaign lasted about a week, all because she was not prepared and could not carry the narrative without all her notes.

Glued to the podium

You also need to stay away from the podium. People hold on to that as if it is a life preserver, but the more you hold on, the more you look unsure. Step away as you become more comfortable, and the long-term goal is to be able to use the entire stage to present, because it keeps the audience glued to your movement.

Yes, the stage is yours so use as much of it as much as possible.

Another one of my other tricks is that I arrive early to walk on the stage to determine where I enter, and get a sense of the view from each point on the stage. If it is a large event and you are asked to come in for a sound check, take the opportunity to do the same.

And regardless what any speech coach tells you, this is a long-term assignment; the more you do it, the more you get better at it. As your confidence increases, look and volunteer for any opportunity to get in front of people.

Use it or lose it

It is like learning a foreign language, and if you do not use it, you will lose it.

In the end, you will look back on this amazing journey and be glad that you did take that one step. And when people tell you how great your speech was, that little voice in the back of your mind will just smile.

Ooops!!! Another invite just came in as I am finishing this post.

Looks like I am headed to Beirut, Lebanon to be the opening keynote for the 2nd Annual Lebanon HR Summit.

The message continues!