Imagine a 12-year-old girl with her head in the clouds, full of ideas and stories and visions of the future. As you might expect, she read lots of books and she dreamed of writing her own. But along the way, she learned a few things about speaking to groups and would like to share them with you.
My first experience speaking to a large group happened, ironically, at a writing conference. My English teacher selected a few students to attend a “young writer’s conference” at a college in a big city. I was honored and excited. The program included workshops on various aspects of creative writing; it was thrilling to learn everything from how to frame my narrative to how to bind my own book.
I also had an experience which I only appreciated much later. The closing session for the conference was attended by all participants. There were at least 150 young people and teachers in the room. Each school was asked to send a representative to the podium to briefly share what the group had enjoyed most about the conference. I was shocked and terrified when my small group of classmates picked me. It may have been a cruel joke — these were the “mean girl” years and I was a little too different to be “cool.” I don’t remember what I said up there. I do remember the long walk to the podium, holding my head high, and daring to look around the room briefly as I spoke. To my surprise, no one laughed. A few people smiled and looked interested. When I returned to the table, my teacher praised me, and my classmates seemed a bit stunned. I had survived.
Many years later, I was reminded of this early lesson, and thankful for the confidence it gave me. I worked in the IT industry and was leading a large team of application engineers. One of my “side jobs” was to support the Account Executive, “Bob,” with the implementation of a new contract for a key client. Each month, he presented a status update to the senior leadership team. It was my responsibility to collect information and produce the presentation. My responsibilities included attending the senior executive meeting with him. One day, Bob turned to me moments before he was to present and said, “You’ve got this,” and left the conference room. I was shocked and terrified. I knew the material, of course, but had never presented to the C-suite. There were tough questions. I learned “I don’t know, but I will find out” is an acceptable answer. This was a test. I think I passed.
My career in IT continued to provide many opportunities to develop my speaking skills: executive presentations, client meetings, town halls, and a few industry events. But the toughest crowd may have been my first batch of students as a college instructor. I was honored and excited to teach. It was an introductory business course. The students were a diverse mix of undergraduate students. There was so much that I wanted to share with them. But it wasn’t about me and what I knew, but rather what the students had signed up to learn. I needed to adjust to them. What speaking style would keep their attention? What communication techniques would work best? How could I share my experience in a relevant way? It was quickly apparent that I needed to meet the students where they were in terms of their knowledge and experience. My speaking style had been refined in the corporate world, and now it needed to evolve. A frequent speaking tip is to focus on your audience, not yourself. Teaching really reinforced that point for me.
Developing my speaking and presentation skills is a continual process and has proven to be very satisfying, even though many of my “lessons learned” have come from uncomfortable and challenging experiences!
The lesson I share with all business students is simple.
• Be confident
• Know your material
• Learn from your mistakes
• Meet people where they are
• It’s all about the audience