I've been doing some research recently in an attempt to build up a public speaking skill set. After reading some of the horror stories in the literature, I realize that I'm probably not that bad.
In fact, the largest stumbling block I have in my public speaking habits is some nervousness at the start, and in this, I'm not alone -– according to the extremely boring book Effective Business Speaking (I'd be willing to bet money on the fact that the author never did a sequel called Engaging Instructional Authorship), public speaking is America's number one fear. As the old saw goes, we'd rather be in the casket than give the eulogy. Although the book was published pre-9/11, I'd guess that public speaking performance anxiety still ranks among America's top fears -– or at least those that we'll admit to on a public survey.
One thing I did learn from skimming this excruciatingly dull book is that, according to the author, "Unless you pass out or continually say 'I'm soooooo nervous,' your audience will probably never even notice your feelings of anxiety."
Although it was kind enough to say, it didn't help whatsoever. In fact, what I took away from this brilliant advice were two more things to add to my already overwhelming list of things not to do while public speaking (in addition to swaying, fidgeting, shifting, jingling, jangling, screaming, swearing, fleeing, etc.)
Another book instructed me to conquer my fear of presentations by trying to "make a list of possible glitches and arm yourself with some clever one-liners." OK, if my presentation wasn't enough to basically memorize verbatim (which is, by the way, another jewel plucked from of this book's cornucopia of counterproductive advice), and alongside the fifty-odd things to remember not to do while giving it, now I'm supposed to somehow cache a list of snappy zingers in the free space left in my head?
Or maybe they should stay on the tip of my tongue? Next to the anvil and the cottonballs?
"The best ad-libs are the ones you've planned for," the author writes. Wow. such powers of counterintuitive advice-giving just left me at a loss for words, which was where I was to begin with, so I guess at least Effective Business Speaking didn't leave me any worse for wear.
On the other hand, the best advice I found on how to give presentations actually came from many sources, but consisted of these two simple words: "Give presentations." In other words, practice makes perfect (or, barring that, at least less imperfect). Among other such wisdom, the Web site Business Balls (yes, it actually exists) advised me to find an honest but tactful audience to critique my presentation for me. Obviously patience would be a virtue to add to that list, but I have to say that those first two (honest, tactful) are good for a start, albeit kind of hard to find in one person. Hey, maybe I'll assemble a focus group. I'd ask for volunteers but my throat just closed up in a full-blown panic attack. Am I jiggling? I'm sorry, it's just to keep from passing out.
In closing (at least I learned something about transitions in my research!), here's a strange but true story: While researching this topic, I picked up a few thick, heavy books like the one described above that purported to be serious studies of time-tested, effective presentation techniques, and found them utterly hilarious and unhelpful. On the other hand, the one book that I allowed myself to pick for fun was Seth Godin's Small Is The New Big, which was only about public speaking in the sense that both those words were in the index.
Knowing the author's work, I fully expected this book to be a hoot, and it was, but with his irreverence and wit (it's basically a collection of 183 of Godin's most recent entries on his blog) Small Is The New Big also delivered me more of what I was looking for –- and needing to hear -– than the others combined.
The overriding takeaway I got from the book is this: Be honest. Take risks. Have fun. That's the best way to deliver the audience engagement that people these days are looking for in their speakers, and in their leaders.
Now that doesn't sound too hard, does it?