As I write this, the coronavirus pandemic is in full swing, and life as we know it has been altered forever. It’s anyone’s guess if, and when, things will return to normal. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.
But somehow, even now, my impulse to work and create, to bring meaning and support to my clients and colleagues continues. As our events are getting cancelled and our trainings are drying up, where are the silver linings? What are the take-aways? In this article, I discuss four ways in which public speakers can learn from this pandemic and become better at our craft for having lived through it.
1) Be prepared
By now, you’ve probably heard of survivalist and preparedness ‘extremists’ who are finally getting their day in the sun as they shake their heads and say “We told you so.” Whether or not you agree with the lengths to which they’ve gone, one thing is for certain. By definition, they are prepared for panic buying, quarantines and public health crises.
Luckily, public speakers don’t need to stockpile adapters, extension cables and printed copies of their presentations. But we do need to plan ahead. So now, ask yourself – when I step to the front of the room, how prepared am I? In this field, there’s generally a relatively small number of moving parts you’ll need to consider in advance, but they’re all of vital importance.
Using the following rubric, score yourself as you read through each area, being as objective as possible:
5 = nailing it
4 = pretty good but could be better
3 = adequate
2 = embarrassing
1 = self-quarantining until further notice
Practicing is a no-brainer. But speakers often wonder, how much is enough? Rather than prescribe a length of time or a number of run-throughs, I suggest that you listen to your intuition. Are you especially worried about a particular section? If so, it probably needs more work, perhaps tweaking the wording or simply spending more time rehearsing it. Do you feel a strange awkwardness about another part, but you’re not sure why? Take the time to investigate what the issue is and how you can resolve it.
In addition, keep in mind that not all methods of practicing are created equal. Should you practice in front of a mirror? I recently read an article by a coach that said doing so is unproductive. I disagree. I’ve written elsewhere that the mirror can be quite effective in calling out inauthentic gestures or sentiments that may have slipped into your speech. But is practicing in front of a mirror enough? Absolutely not. There’s a whole host of ways you can practice. My point here is to encourage you to find what works for you and then, when you can deliver all parts with confidence and ease, I’d say you’re done.
Know your audience
Another no-brainer. But precisely how do we do this? I recently came across a short video made by Derek Deprey, motivational speaker and author of the book ‘Shift’, in which he discusses his comprehensive ‘pre-event questionnaire’. Prior to every single presentation, he completes this questionnaire with the event planner; it covers everything from the organization’s goals to the set up of the room. Of course, he’s also included questions about the audience.
Why not develop your own set of questions that, when answered, will provide you with an overall profile of your audience, including their needs and expectations? You might want to start with these and tailor them to your specific field as necessary:
- What is the average age of my audience and is age a factor in how they will respond to my material?
- How much does the audience already know about my topic?
- What does my audience hope to learn or gain from my presentation?
- Does my audience have a problem that I can help them solve?
- What do I want my audience to do with the information that I’ve provided?
Know your tech
For those of us who weren’t born with a tiny cell phone in our hand, the tech involved in giving a presentation can be challenging indeed. And you may be thinking, “I’m just not a tech person.” But because the tech we utilize is often an inextricable part of our job, I urge you to embrace the challenge and do your best to educate yourself so that you’re more likely to be able to give your audience exactly what they came for, if not more. They’ll thank you for it, of that I’m sure.
Start with whatever trips you up the most, or perhaps what scares you the most, whether that be formatting issues in PowerPoint or your images not displaying on the screen. And now that so many folks are being forced to work from home, it’s more important than ever to learn how to deliver a webinar or online training.
Back in 2019, in order to provide some practical help to those of us in the “technically challenged” camp, I interviewed Jim Harvey of The Message Business and one of the founders of Presentation Guru. We talked about why you can’t just trust the ‘tech guy’ and specific equipment you’ll want to be familiar with. This information is still timely, and another good place to start.
Even if you know your tech backwards and forwards, tech failures can still happen. Could the show go on without your PowerPoint? Your audience deserves a resounding yes, so be prepared for that, too.
Double check your materials
If you do trainings or workshops, it’s likely that you provide your audience with a workbook or some type of handout. Obviously, you’ll want to prepare these well enough in advance so that you can look them over ahead of time. That way, if something has gone awry in the printing pipeline, there’s time to correct it. Or imagine that the printer got your deadline wrong and you’ve got to deliver your presentation without any handouts whatsoever. Have you mentally played out this scenario and brainstormed solutions that would allow you to provide a complete experience in spite of the circumstances?
A friend of mine who recently delivered an educational workshop was mortified to find, as she stood in front of her audience, that several pages of her workbook were missing. The department that had invited her to speak had printed them out, and neither they nor she had noticed the error. Luckily, she knew the material well enough that she was able to make it work. Could you do the same?
So, how did you score on preparedness? If you’re not nailing it in every area, consider what you need to do/learn/change to get there. What steps can you take, right now, to ensure a better presentation when the dust has settled and it’s finally time to step back on stage?
2) Be willing to innovate
Part of living through this pandemic is coming to terms with the fact that important plans you made long ago may very well be unravelling before your eyes. Weddings and graduation ceremonies are being cancelled. Vacations are being cut short, and children are out of school entirely. Even worse, work that you were counting on may have been postponed indefinitely, and that new job might not materialize after all. If we’re going to get through this, we need to be willing to consider new possibilities and be ready to pivot.
One of the most obvious examples that hits close to home is the decision by numerous conference organizers to offer their conference online. I can only imagine the logistics involved in this kind of shift! (Some of you may be wishing you didn’t have to.) Rather than responding with “no way, never, not me”, someone was willing to say “what if…?” This is how innovation begins.
How can we bring this same willingness to our work as individual speakers?
Let your colleagues inspire you
Join professional organizations like Presentation Guild to see what others are doing. You can also discuss ideas in their community forum or attend one of their events. This kind of interaction often motivates us to try something different. Another option is to connect with other speakers on a social network like LinkedIn to read about their current accomplishments and consider how you might want to try something similar.
Seek out constructive criticism
If you’re a speaker with many years of experience, it’s easy to think you’ve already learned everything there is to know about public speaking. But remember this – change is the only constant. Techniques that were cutting edge just three years ago may already be considered blasé. Are you actively seeking out honest feedback on a regular basis from other speaking professionals whom you respect? Are you open to hearing that you need to make some (perhaps considerable) changes?
I was recently preparing for a workshop and ran some of my material by a teacher friend. She pointed out parts that weren’t very clear and suggested measures I could take to ensure that my participants would succeed in the exercises I was giving them. Even though I had to make substantial revisions, it was completely worth it – the workshop was a success. We all need this kind of feedback.
3) Know how to manage your fear
Even before the coronavirus hit, there was always more than enough fear-inducing news to go around. However, the coronavirus has added a whole new level of intensity – it’s invisible, it’s dangerous, and there’s nowhere to hide. Now that’s scary. Many people are dealing with a kind of anxiety that they’ve never experienced before and, at the same time, looking for ways to manage their fear and get some relief.
I realize that the fear associated with the current pandemic is founded in actual mortality rates, whereas even if you feel like you’re going to die just before stepping on stage, stepping on stage in and of itself is not going to kill you. That being said, we all know stage fright can be horrifying, miserable, miserably horrifying, and horrifyingly miserable. Relief from overwhelming fear is also what a lot of public speakers want.
Here are some steps you can take to manage your fear:
Get comfortable with the phrase “not all of my thoughts are true.”
Fear builds not simply because we are having scary thoughts, but because we are believing them. Public speakers might be believing thoughts like: “My audience is going to hate me” or “I’m going to forget; I just know I am.” When your thoughts start spinning out of control, you can remind yourself that not all of your thoughts are true. You can even go a step further by saying aloud a statement that’s more likely to be true, e.g., “My audience wants me to succeed”, or “I’m going to do the very best I can”. Notice how saying the positive statement out loud creates a completely different energy in your body than the fearful statement does.
Say what? Yep, you read that right. Expressing gratitude on a regular basis reduces anxiety. If you’re low on speaking events and your schedule has opened up, now is the perfect time to start. It’s simple – start (or end) every day by writing down at least five things you’re grateful for. That’s it! Don’t worry about repeats – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thankful for my morning cup of coffee. I’ve found that this practice has permeated my entire way of thinking, and while it hasn’t banished anxiety completely, it’s certainly made it easier to cope with.
Remind yourself that the world needs to hear what you have to say
Taking the focus off yourself and remembering that you are providing a needed service to your audience is often helpful. It’s somewhat like forgetting that you’re shy when you see a stranger in dire need of a little assistance.
Be mindful of how you spend the time immediately before you step on stage
Rather than nervously and obsessively reciting your speech, try to be present with your body. Breathe deeply. Strike the power pose and move around to release nervous energy. You might also want to listen to music that makes you feel empowered or recall favorite affirmations. These kinds of intentional actions can all help shift you away from fear and toward a more positive frame of mind. For more details check out my video titled “Maximize the Minutes Just Before You Speak.”
4) Be a source of hope
Beyond hand-washing and self-isolating, it’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of the coronavirus. And yet, everyday, small acts of kindness remind us that there’s still lots of good in the world. Just as stockpiling and isolating had begun in the U.S., writer Roxane Gay started a Twitter thread in which she wrote, “If you are broke and need to stock up on groceries, I will Venmo you $100. Like 10 people.” This led to many people describing their need, and complete strangers stepping up when Ms Gay had already given away $1,000. Later, other people tweeted similar offers, and the cycle of giving continued. In this way, hope seemed to multiply faster than the virus itself.
If yours is a ‘heavy’ topic (the kind that makes people grimace and shudder when you merely bring it up), it’s especially important to bring hope. I’m not talking about sugar-coating or ignoring the facts. Never. But you want to create plenty of space to include the positive as well.
Ideas for creating hope
Here are some ideas for creating hope, whether you’re dealing with an especially difficult topic or speaking during tough times, or both:
- Tell stories of ‘ordinary’ people who have made a difference.
- Tell stories of people who have overcome the odds and triumphed.
- Show statistics that demonstrate how things can improve when enough people are focused on change.
- Describe how much better the future will be if enough people decide to take action.
- Provide actions that your audience can take, right now, to improve the situation at hand.
I want to reiterate – whatever the topic, it’s all too easy to focus on the negative, to talk about all the things that are going wrong, and describe how much worse it’s going to get. Your audience will leave their seats, heads hanging, and although you may have gotten the facts right, I see no winners in this scenario. On the other hand, while it may take more effort to find the good, and find the ways this good can be multiplied, doing so will inspire your audience. And if you take the time to skillfully and gracefully inspire them, they will stand and cheer and want to run out and change the world! And isn’t that what we’re all after?
Finally, to conclude, a little bonus tip: collaborate instead of compete
This pandemic has brought out both the best and worst in people. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve seen acts of extraordinary kindness, but we’ve also seen acts of greed and fear, like the panic buying that has left many out in the cold. It’s a good time to ask yourself, what kind of person will I be in this strange new world we’re living in?
Furthermore, as a presentation specialist, what kind of person am I now? Do I believe that as more speakers enter my field, the bigger the pie gets for all of us? Or am I sure that the number of slices is finite, so I had better protect my share? Am I willing to collaborate and share the stage with others, or do I want the spotlight to shine on me, and me alone? Do I consistently draw attention to the successes of my colleagues, or do I only promote myself? Take some time now to reflect on your behavior and how it’s affecting those around you. Commit to adjusting as necessary.
May the wake up call that is the coronavirus not only make you a better public speaker, but a more noble person as well.