Be a better speaker – get comfortable with being uncomfortable

I’m yet to coach a speaker who isn’t worried they will forget what they’re saying. I personally don’t think it’s a massive problem if you do forget your words – or fall off the stage for that matter. The audience will get over it.

But if you are worried you will do something stupid, you can end up doing some weird stuff on stage.

Now, one argument says you should stand up straight and smile and no one will know you’re shaking inside. It’s not a bad tool to have up your sleeve. But I’ve found a more powerful option:

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Imagine this scenario:
You forget your words mid-talk.
You pause and it feels awkward.
Half a second passes. For you, it feels like an hour.
You still haven’t said anything.
You don’t want the audience to suspect you’re uncomfortable so you try to mask your panic and push on.
In a bid to stay composed you talk faster to fill the gap.

In fact, this can happen when you haven’t forgotten your words. It can happen when you’re worried you will.

Instead, get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s normal. But most importantly, the moments where you are comfortable with uncomfortable are the moments you can listen to your audience, playfully feed off their energy and deliver a really engaging talk. Not just one where you look confident.

Delve more into this topic in the upcoming Speaker Coaching course. Email rachael@strategiccreativityatwork.com.au to find out more.

Be a better speaker – the power of stillness

Given the choice, do you choose to speak behind the lectern, or take the lapel mic and roam free? I choose the latter, but recommend speakers I coach do whichever they are most comfortable with.

When speakers who normally prefer the protection of the lectern decide to challenge themselves by going with the lapel mic, one of the things we work on is how they move.

Standing on the open stage lets the audience see you. This is powerful.

But with such exposure, the question “What do I do with my body?” becomes more prescient.

I support and encourage natural movement when speaking. (Aside: pacing, on the other hand, is often distracting for the audience and – in my experience – a sign the speaker is not totally comfortable.)

For natural movement to have its full power when you are speaking to a large group, root yourself first in stillness. Not the contrived sort, or the clasp-your-hands-tightly-behind-your-back-so-I-don’t-pace.

Rather, aim for the kind of stillness that says, “I am here for you, dear audience” (to quote, perhaps, surprisingly, my clown teacher, Rick Allen). “What I have to say is important and I want you to hear it.”

That kind of presence and physical stillness tends to force emotion into your voice, and expression into your face (in a good way!). Many conferences are so large these days that speakers are projected onto a large screen, making it even more potent for your audience.

Delve more into this topic in the upcoming Speaker Coaching course with Rachael West. Email rachael@strategiccreativityatwork.com.au for details.

Be a better speaker – be yourself

Quieter types in my speaker workshops are usually a bit nervous. They think I am going to make them be loud and vivacious. But if would be a very boring world if everyone had the same mannerisms on stage.

Being an engaging speaking is less about trying to ‘do’ something, and more about bringing out what they already have. In my Engaging Presentations Workshop, one of the first things we practice is “presence”.

“Presence” starts when you tune in to who you are – in fact how you are – before you’ve said a word.

It can be pretty scary to notice how you feel on stage, what you’re thinking about, and how you move (some of the first things we practice) – which is why most people avoid it.

Most of the time, though, the way you move when you are enthused by what you are talking about (which, quite frankly, you should be if you are going to get up and talk about it in front of lots of people) will be a delight to watch. Lots of people I speaker coach are worried they wave their arms around too much; often because someone once told them they should be perfectly still when speaking.

There’s a power in stillness, but when you are moved to move, and you follow that impulse – your audience will see you.  (Which is, after all, why they are there.)

You can get 150 public servants to play (seriously) at a conference

There are a number of clowning games I had only ever taught to groups of about ten – until I opened day 2 of the Local Government Professionals Women’s summit and had 130 women walking around the room, playing.

Play evokes learning

If you think clown is slapstick, my style of clown is more modern and less literal. If you think play is for children or cringeworthy ice-breakers, think about the concept of Lila, or divine play that makes (say) puppies learn the skills for life. For the style of clown I practice, play is fun and can even be silly, but it always evokes learning.

While games can be played to evoke learning in a specific category (say teamwork or communications) the specific takeaways are often unknown until you do it. This means the play-er is participatory, observational and reflective all at once.

You learn more when you play the same game over and over – and over

One ‘game’ we played relentlessly with my clowning teachers was the “walk around the room game”. (I tend to name games rather literally.) Everyone, literally, walks around the room.

This might not sound like much of a game, but it is amazing how much play you can find in something so simple. Even for adults, and especially if done repeatedly, past the point of boredom so you can notice the subtle and unobvious.

The same game can teach you about lots of things

I use the “walk around the room game” in training to warm people up, tune into themselves, notice others, notice their environment, notice how comfortable they are with eye contact, develop complicité in a group, observe patterns, learn how comfortable they are with rules, notice how other people follow rules (or don’t), notice what they notice. The more you play the more you notice.

All from one simple game, with a few carefully chosen variations.

One creative constraint changes everything

At the Local Government Women’s summit the “walk around the room game” was impeded by your typical conference tables and chairs and by a lot of people. Yet it worked, perhaps because of the “creative constraint” that meant people had to work harder to stay aware.

My favourite moment: when I introduced the rule “there must be one person walking around the room at any one time and only one person”. When people think they are following the rules (but aren’t) and when others have responses to that, that’s when things get really interesting.

This is an excerpt from Finding Your Voice, a workshop for women finding their voice in the workplace. Incorporates storytelling, play and reflection. Designed for 120 people. Get in touch to find out more.

Being heard is not about being loudest

When I was a young engineer, I was told to be more assertive. I was given tips like, “Be the first to speak up in meeting”, or “Apply for jobs even if you don’t meet all the criteria”. Apparently the lack of representation of women in the workplace could be solved by being louder.

But speaking up doesn’t mean you are heard. And being heard doesn’t mean anything changes. (Refer the last three decades on climate change.)

I was invited to open day 2 of the Local Government Professionals Women’s summit with a 90-minute storytelling, clown-inspired, historically referenced workshop, Finding Your Voice.

If engineering taught me that being more assertive was not enough, clown taught me that sometimes (in fact, mostly) not saying something is even better.

The silence of clown, or the yogi, or the person with a contribution to make, is not a passive silence. It is a silence of listening. Of observing. Rather than speaking to assert oneself, they speak at the right time for their audience, their students and those they intend to influence.

Finding Your Voice is a workshop for women finding their voice in the workplace. Incorporates storytelling, play and reflection. Designed for 120 people. Get in touch to find out more.

What to do if you stuff up during a talk

“What advice do you have if you stuff up in the middle of your talk?”

This was a question raised after my “Finding Your Voice workshop at the Local Government Professionals Women’s Forum.

I asked the gent in question if he had a specific situation in mind: there’s a big difference between forgetting your words, and the crowd throwing tomatoes because you’ve said something uninformed or racist.

Turned out he didn’t have a clear example of the kind of mistake he worried he might make. Rather, his question reflected a fear many of us have: that something terribly bad (but as yet unknown) will happen in front of a lot of people.

Take a moment now, to think about how many conference stuff-ups you can recall.

For myself, the few negative memories I have are of speakers who were boring, didn’t prepare, went overtime and wasted the audience’s time. Those who forgot their words, cried, or broke a shoe I tended to find endearing – human. Especially if they handled it with humour and grace.

So, my short answer to the question about what to do if you make a mistake: presuming you have prepared appropriately, your audience really doesn’t mind. In fact, mistakes often yield benefits.

People like to see humans
No one goes to a conference to listen to an automaton. If you say something silly, trip or lose your place, it reminds the audience that you are an ordinary person, just like them. Being relatable is useful if you want other people to think they can do what you’re advising them to.

Caveat: The audience expects you to be ready for the talk!
While you are totally allowed to make mistakes, kindliness towards such errors applies only if you have put some effort into planning your talk. If you’re waffly and mumbly ‘coz you haven’t done the hard yards, your listeners will not be so patient!

If you totally lose it, why not let the audience in on what’s happening.
Did you research your topic, rehearse and do everything you could to ensure the audience would get value from giving up their time to listen to you? Great! Then all you need to do when you lose your spot is say something like, “Hmm…sorry, I seem to have missed a whole chunk. It was really important so if you don’t mind I’m going to go back to it!” Breathe in, and resume when you are ready. It might even get a laugh.

Mistakes can be opportunities
I lost my place in this very workshop! Since I am a speaker coach, I thought I should follow my own advice so, after a moment of internal panic, I paused, said to the audience, “I have completely lost my place”, and looked down at my notes until I worked out where I was. An audience member told me later that she appreciated my approach! “Seeing you confused about your slides and finding your place again was really good. It helped us see the human element”.

Bonus advice: Strategic mistakes
When I used to perform clown shows (modern clown) mistakes we made by accident were often so funny for the audience we would work them in the following night. Perhaps I should make losing my place in this workshop a built-in feature for next time.

If you’re relying on a script so there’s no possibility of making a mistake, you may like to check out How to deliver a presentation without notes

Or read more about speaker coaching for your next conference or professional presentation.