Owning your public speaking

Last week I attended a UKSG workshop called ‘Make Yourself Heard’ which was for anyone wanting to improve their public speaking skills. Public speaking is something I do quite a lot of in my day job, and although I enjoy it and I’m generally a lot more comfortable with it than I used to be, I can still get very nervous. I’d hoped the workshop might give me some tips on how to better prepare and how to manage my nerves.

Speaking at CILIP Conference 2015
Speaking at CILIP Conference 2015 (I was unusually nervous at this one)

Within the first few minutes I realised I was going to really enjoy the workshop (always a good thing to realise!). The facilitators introduced the day and explained how we were going to learn, and I was immediately taken back to my time at Clore – we were assured that the space was a safe space to explore our feelings about public speaking, and that we would be encouraged to go outside of our comfort zone but not as far as our panic zone. We were also asked to respect confidentiality, to listen to others and pay everyone the respect they deserve (including giving our full attention). This might sound obvious, but I really like it when a day begins in this way as I find it really helps set the scene. It’s something I always do with focus groups, but I’m planning to make sure I do this in my workshops in future.

We were introduced to the content, and at that point I realised that what I actually wanted to get out of the day wasn’t tips for managing my nerves, it was actually something much more fundamental. My learning goal was therefore:

To learn how to integrate my authentic drivers into my public speaking.

Quite a big ask, but I can happily say it definitely delivered!

Throughout the day we were encouraged to reflect on our experiences, pay attention to how we feel about upcoming speaking engagements, and think about how we could approach them differently. One learning point for me was when we looked at the different perspectives we have on public speaking. We were given a scenario of preparing for an important presentation on a topic we hadn’t spoken about before but knew about with 3 weeks notice, and I viewed this one positively (I chose the statement that said “A great opportunity to grow and learn”) but when we were given a scenario to share something that was a life affirming experience for us and we were really passionate about I chose the statement “The thought alone makes me feel nervous/anxious”. This wasn’t a common thing in my group and the facilitators encouraged me to unpick that a little more. I think it’s linked to my reluctance to ‘hold the space’ which I experience in both work contexts and social contexts. I’m more comfortable sharing factual information as I can see a clear benefit to sharing that with people, but I’m less comfortable sharing personal experiences as it feels very indulgent and I’m not always sure people will be interested. I’m aware this is an issue I need to overcome and I’m working on that (I feel like I’ve already made some progress on this front since the workshop last week but have a lot more work to do!). 

Our facilitators also shared with us four cornerstones and seven habits of effective public speaking, and we watched some videos of good (and poor) public speaking to help us consider what makes something effective and how this varies  depending on the context and the speaker. I found this really useful for helping me consider my learning goal of working out what feels authentic to me rather than following certain generic rules. Formal public speaking doesn’t feel natural or enjoyable for me but I realised there are things I can do to make these type of situations more appropriate for me (not standing behind a lecturn for example, or wearing an oufit I’m more comfortable in). These small things will, I think, help me focus more on the content of the message I’m delivering which should be better for both myself and my audience. 

We also got the opportunity to practice our public speaking skills at the end of the day and got some really useful feedback from the facilitators. I was very pleased with my feedback – I was told I came across confidently and that my body talk was good (I remember once learning that this was a bad habit but I’m glad that’s not necessarily the case!). The facilitators commented that I presented well when I didn’t refer to my notes which I was pleased to hear as this also felt far more natural to me. I was encouraged to slow down (there’s that point about holding the space again!) and to incorporate stories and jokes into my presentations more. 

The main thing I took from the session is that I should do my public speaking the way that feels natural to me, and integrate all I’ve learnt about being authentic into my public speaking (both formal and informal). For me that includes making sure I am focusing on talking about things I’ve learnt and found interesting and sharing this with others in a language that is easy for them to understand (which will mean adapting the message depending on who I am talking to). Another commonality with this training and what I learnt at Clore was also the importance of story telling so I’m going to try to include this in my public speaking more – whether this is my own story, or using stories about others (e.g. people who have used the service I’m speaking about) to explain things more easily.

I found the workshop incredibly helpful, and it came at just the right time. I have quite a few public speaking engagements in the next few weeks and months so will be practicing doing these in slightly different ways to see what works best for me.  I’m presenting later today and plan not to use my slides (other than a few key ones with screenshots or quotes). I’m planning to include story telling and will see if I can add a joke or two (this might be a bit more tricky given the topic is usage statistics!). If anything goes particularly well, or particularly badly, over the next few weeks of experimentation I’ll share in a later blog post. Wish me luck!