Overcome your public speaking fears before they get the better of you. Warren Buffett has admitted that the thought of public speaking made him physically ill. He took action to improve his communication skills by paying $100 for a Dale Carnegie class.
I still remember my first speech. I was in Kindergarten (in Australia that’s 5-6 year olds in their first year of school) and I didn’t know how to read. My mum cut up cardboard palm cards and we drew pictures as cues for me. The speech was about my summers at my grandparents caravan in the NSW south coast town of Gerringong:
My childhood was incredibly blessed. My parents constantly encouraged my siblings and I to read and learn. It was only as an adult that I realised not everyone gets that chance.
My first encounter with formal public speaking set the stage for me. Every year in primary school when speech time came around, I was taught to embrace public speaking. To this day I still get nervous but I’ve never feared public speaking. I’m not arrogant in my abilities, but I think what sets my speaking ability apart is my confidence.
Over the past couple of years people have often asked me how I present so confidently. I thought it would be a good topic for this blog. Before I share my tips though, I think it’s important people know my story. The reality is it has taken years of practise and reinvention to become a confident speaker. You’d be amazed at the number of times I’ve had 10 minutes notice to pull off a Toastmasters presentation. Not fun, but as my dad would say, character building!
The biggest lesson I learnt in my first year of business?
You have to show up to every single meeting with more front than a Woolies supermarket. Don’t let anyone sniff out your fear because even if you know your stuff, any hesitation or uncertainty will erode your credibility.
It’s like when you’re driving. You’re in the merging lane and no one will let you in. Do you slow down and wait? No, because the flowing traffic will never let you in. You maintain your speed, assert you’re dominance and merge whether the other driver likes it or not.
Don’t mistake this for arrogance. You need to have built up your knowledge and done your homework before you speak so that you maintain credibility with your peers. If you know your stuff, present it like you are the world oracle on your topic. I’ve seen it too many times where people have done amazing work but they jump around too much in their presentation or hesitate too often and people lose trust.
I found corporate public speaking intimidating and difficult
When I started working for Macquarie Bank I didn’t know the first thing about product management let alone the products themselves. Despite my background in public speaking, I struggled immensely with business presentations. I used to get so jumbled up. I knew what I wanted to say but I simply couldn’t get it out in a coherent fashion.
I remember our Head of Operations at the time pulling me aside after one particularly disastrous presentation and he said to me “Amy, I know you know your stuff. It’s all up there. Do you mind if I give you some feedback?”
So of course I say yes!
“You will really benefit if you take a step back and focus on two things. The first is setting the scene so everyone knows what the situation and problem is. Then, once you’ve done that, just nail your top 3 points. Do that and people will follow you.”
Once again, it sounds like such an obvious piece of advice but it turned my presentation abilities around overnight. I was often going into meetings feeling intimidated that other people in the room had worked for the bank for 10+ years. This was a huge mistake because I was often making the incorrect assumption that everyone knew what I was talking about when, actually, sometimes they didn’t.
After years of public speaking practise…
People began complimenting me! The best moment I ever had in this regard was at American Express when I presented a massive piece of analysis on their credit card statements to 5 directors. At the end of my presentation, one of the directors came up to me and said, “Throughout your whole presentation, I was like ‘yeah, what she said!’ How are you so confident?”
I was 5 months into the role but what those directors didn’t see was that I had spent hours of time reviewing customer statements, understanding the nuances between different products and most importantly speaking to the developers about how the statement system worked. I can’t remember exactly but my guess is my analysis probably wasn’t even 100% accurate. It didn’t matter, the leaders believed in my ability to solve the problem!
Practise, Practise, Practise!
The only way you can overcome your fear of public speaking is, sorry, to do more of it. The Macquarie Bank was an incubator for presentation skills and I owe so much of my ability today to the people there.
If I couldn’t read in Kindergarten and still managed to pull off a killer speech, then I have faith you can crush your next presentation!