Friday, May 23, 2008

Public Typing: Yes, Public Talking: No

One of the tasks of our company meeting over the last two days was to answer important departmental questions such as "How can we work smarter and faster?", "What does it mean to win?" and my group's question, "How can we leverage our assets to become the partner of choice?"

I'm a copywriter, not a corporate strategist. Yet, I was chosen to lead a team of 6 other people, brainstorm an answer to that pesky business conundrum, and then present our group's recommendation to a room of about 60 people. Without having 3 glasses of wine beforehand.

I started out on a high note. We presented right after one of the "smarter/faster" teams who insisted we stand up so they were forced to speak smarter and faster to keep our attention. Cute tactic. When I got behind the mic, I said, "Public speaking makes me nervous, so instead of having you stand I'd like all of you to turn your chairs around and face the back wall." Everyone laughed. And then the Hetherington Hindenburg began its fiery decent back to the earth.

I had written out the points we needed to cover, but my chicken scratch was difficult to read in some parts and I really didn't want to look up from my paper, but I had to make sure I was keeping time with the Powerpoint presentation and making occasional eye contact with the audience, which always makes me blush, and the red face distracted me so I lost my place on the paper a few times and probably choked on several words here and there but I really can't remember what happened after my opening joke because I was so bored with everything I was saying that I (and my audience) fell into a temporary coma.

When it was over, my group embarrassed me even more by sweetly saying, "Good job, Mel!" like I was the special ed. kid who just spelled Mississippi for the first time.

But as I watched all the other presenters, I knew I hadn't done a good job—because I was so dang nervous. What is the secret to public speaking??? So many people got up and spoke like they were standing in front of their families at the dinner table. No big deal. How the heck do they do that???

I'm a very outgoing person and never shut up when I'm with family, friends and close coworkers. I did okay giving a speech at my grandma's memorial service...and I spoke at my friend Lara's engagement dinner...but you put me in a room full of extended acquaintances or strangers and I'm a wreck!

Do any of you have advice or tricks I can employ next time I have to do something like this? (Don't say Toastmasters, please.)


Jane Moneypenny said...

I am notoriously a horrific public speaker! I get SO anxious and nervous. One time when I had to give an opening speech to a sold-out crowd for a show I ran in college, I blanked out completely and messed up everyone's names I had to thank. The entire audience burst out laughing and it's on DVD forever. I learned that day to find someone in the crowd you can focus on that will make you smile if needed.

It helped a lot when I had to give a maid of honor speech at a wedding and I felt like throwing up before from sheer fear. But once I looked at my best friend and talked to her, it went fine.

Man, I feel ya. Public speaking makes me sick to my stomach.

Michael C said...

Jokes. Tell lots of jokes. I enjoy speaking in public/groups and have found that once I make a few jokes and everyone loosens up (including me) that everything gets easier and feels more informal.

If that doesn't work, try tripping over a chair on the way up to speaking. Trust me, it works everytime...
Have a great holiday weekend!!!1

brookem said...

gosh, i dont have the answer. i get pretty skutched out by speaking in front of big crowds that im not familiar/comfortable with too.

at least you got it over with. i bet you did better than you think!

laura said...

i'm sure you did fine...i have no advice because i don't particularly like public speaking either...except maybe after a few vodka tonics, but that's hard to pull off at work!

Dingo said...

I don't know if anyone actually likes public speaking. I think some are just better than others at hiding their discomfort. So, I don't have any advice other than you should carry a flask with you to work at all times. Should a public speaking occasion arise, slip off to the bathroom for a quick slug of liquid courage and you're good to go!

Big sister said...

Ativan, Klonopin or Xanax. Better speaking through chemistry, I always say.

Alysha said...

I would so love to know the secret to losing that fear! Some say its practice, however, due to church, I have been forced to speak in public to semi-large audiences since I was a small child and still get scared to death everytime, ending up speeding through my prepared speech and sitting down wondering exactly what I said, because I can't remember and I didn't read it, because I was trained by my mother, never to read a speech... that thought contained a lot of commas. Oh, and guess what? I just saw a picture of the back of your head on Sarah G.'s new website.

Anonymous said...

I am quite possibly the worse public speaker - especially in front of work peeps. I had to give a presentation a couple of months ago to our VP & spent the whole night before hunched over the toilet. Yeah, not good. Like you, if it involves friends or family I am super outgoing & feel very comfortable in a crowd but otherwise - no thanks.

Anonymous said...

Wish I had some amazing advice, but honestly, I don't. The only time I get remotely comfortable with public speaking is when I'm in complete control of the material (i.e. I know it like the back of my hand), and even then, I'm a nervous wreck.

Mel Heth said...

Jane - That's a good idea - picking a safety person. I'll try that next time!

Michael C - Can I wear an ear piece and just have you pipe jokes in to me? That would make it easier.

Brookem - You're so sweet. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it seemed...who am I kidding, it was awful. Love your use of "skutched."

Laura - If drunk dials count as public speaking, you're a pro!!

Dingo - Seriously! I think I would've been a hit if I were a little sauced.

Sister - Can you give me the name of your dealer?

Alysha - The ONLY way I can deliver an actual speech is by reading it straight from my notes. Maybe if I paint eyes on my eyelids, people will think I'm looking at them and not the paper.

Semichrmd - You POOR dear!! That's terrible. Maybe you should follow Dingo's "flask" advice. :)

Geekhiker - Yes, I think familiarity w/the subject matter helps a lot. That's probably why I find it easier to speak at weddings and funerals - then it's about people I know well.