A Refreshing, Low Anxiety Approach To Public Speaking

Changing your view of public speaking from an exercise in hero worship into something you do as an act of service

There are two types of people in this world, those who think a place of authority entitles them to more respect and those who understand that a leader’s job is actually to be in service of their tribe. Leadership doesn’t entitle you to anything, in fact, unless your only thought is ‘how can I better serve the people I’m leading?’ It should only put you further under the microscope. The same is true of public speaking.

A large number of the people who approach me to coach them in public speaking, do so because of a crippling fear of getting on stage. That fear is often built on the belief that a speakers success is about superior technique, an inherent worthiness and an iron clad sense of self. Whereas having worked with a number of great speakers, I’ve found that oftentimes the opposite is true. There are many great speakers who do not posses great confidence, but they overcome their fear in order to be in service of their message and they tether themselves and their confidence to that message, humbly in service of the people they wish to reach.

A C-Level executive working for an agency client of mine once had a particularly tough time over preparing her speeches. She would practice again and again to try and get her presentation word perfect, dotting every i and crossing every t. The problem was even when she was “getting it right,” the presentation came across stilted and often failed to connect with the audience, but why would it? She wasn’t really speaking to them at all. Rather she was reciting her pre rehearsed idea of how things should go. Secondly, if anything did go wrong, if she said a wrong word, a slide didn’t work or she lost her place, she would go completely blank and struggle to continue.

After witnessing both sides of this problem for myself I sat down with this woman, who was an expert in her field and said quite simply, “What are you doing?” After a bit of discussion we landed on the fact that her goal was to achieve unambiguous perfection. When she admitted that even if she were to manage to recite her presentation word for word that the result still wouldn’t be perfect, I discussed the idea of service with her.

“You know this stuff.” I said “You’re as knowledgeable about this topic as anyone in this industry and at the moment, you’re setting yourself up to sound like you’re not, because you’re trying too hard to sound like you are. I bet, gun to your head, that if you came into this room right now, with no notes and looked at this client in the face and asked yourself the question ‘what do they really need to know from me’ you would knock this presentation out of the park. At the moment; you’re worried about how you look and how you sound, but if you focused all of your energy on giving the client what they need, you’d do that better than anyone else.”

The example of a service minded teacher that immediately came to mind was the author of one of my favourite books, Keith Johnstone. In his book “Impro” Keith talks about taking on a class of primary school students that had been identified by their school as being ‘challenging’ and ‘slow’. While other teachers often showed sympathy for Keith’s position, he was always quick to allay their concerns and insisted that many of his students were actually brighter than most.

On his first day with the new class as the students filed in, they found Mr. Johnstone sitting on the floor. Puzzled, they sat at their desks as Mr. Johnstone began to speak. In his first address to the class, he stressed four key things; “I promise that if any of you receive a failing grade during this class that I will personally apologise to you. I am not perfect, I will make mistakes and I urge you to be patient with me.” He made it clear that since he was in the position that claimed to be the expert, he would therefore take on the responsibility for their progress. His sole focus was to be in service of them, not his ego, not standardised test results, but the people he was charged to lead. By the end of his speech nearly all of the students had sat on the floor, because they didn’t want to be a higher than their new found leader.

A lot of people go into business to be their own boss, but a more accurate description would be that you become your own employee. Likewise a lot of people go into thought leadership to be a star, but the reality is far less glamourous. When you take up the mantle of head honcho, there’s no where left to pass the buck. The most important thing is that it’s not about how you look, or how you sound, it’s about how committed you are to serving the needs and desires of the people you lead. If you see having your position as giving you an obligation to serve and always think of the people you serve first, you will win their respect and be quietly celebrated for many years to come. Taking your opportunities to speak to them in public forum will become simply a matter of course.