Public Speaking – Awesome Skill or Worse than Death? Speaking in front of 30000 people

Working Women Wednesdays gives you tips, tricks, and information about being a successful working mom in corporate America.

Speaking in public. It’s many peoples worse fear – even worse than death.  For 19% of people speaking in public is their top fear, but death comes in second place at 16%. According to Psychology Today, the reason is that we fear rejection. In my observation, people that are afraid of public speaking actually fear multiple things. Not only rejection, but they’re afraid they’re going to forget what they wanted to say. They’re afraid they’ll do a bad job in front of their friends, colleagues, or the general audience. They’ll walk up and fall flat on their face, the audience won’t laugh at their jokes, and in general it will be a total disaster.

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My Story – How Speaking about Finances Changed my Life

I had to take an extra class for an elective, and public speaking was at the right time for my schedule (early Saturday mornings). To be honest I don’t remember anything about that class except for the final speech, where I talked about investing, compound interest, and financial independence. Now I’m sure they taught us plenty of things – how to structure a speech, how to present, how to keep the audiences interest – but I don’t remember any of it. Sorry professor! In my defense ,it’s been a long time.

When it was time to get up and give my speech, I was of course nervous. I’m very shy, and I’ve never gotten up in front of a group to talk before except very briefly as part of a group in other classes. This was different -it was a prepared speech on a topic I choose, and I would be the only one in front of the class talking about it. So I talked for 10 (I think?) minutes about investing, compound interest, and how small amounts of money could turn into large amounts over time.

There were two things that happened after that speech that changed the way I saw public speaking:

  • A fellow classmate, who would have been in his late teens or early 20’s at the time, came up to me after the speech. He told me that my talk had been amazing, and that he couldn’t wait to get started investing and saving for the future. It was really the example of compound interest that fascinated him – you could put away small amounts of money over a large period of time and end up with millions of dollars. I often wonder what happened to him, and whether or not he followed through. This was in 2003, so if he started investing then he would be doing very well by now.
  • My teacher also spoke to me after the talk, and he spoke to me like an adult rather than like the 22-year-old I was. First, he praised my speech – and this was not a professor known for saying everyone did a great job, so I knew he meant it. He also asked whether or not I thought the stock market would really continue to return 10% over time. Now this was only a few years after the dot com crash and 9/11, so it was a valid question. I said that I thought it would, because why would I know any better? (Side note – I went to an online stock market calculator to answer this question. This conversation occurred in May of 2003. From that time through today the stock market, with dividends reinvested, has returned 8.651%. Not 10%, but pretty darn close. I hope you listened to me professor!)

So how did those two conversations impact how I saw public speaking? Well I saw that a short speech could have a powerful impact on others. Your words could inspire people to action, make them sad, bring them joy, or inform them.

From that point on I wanted to improve my public speaking skills but rarely had a chance at work. At the time I was an IT business/systems analyst for a Fortune 500 company, so only rarely did I have a chance to give an actual speech. So I joined Toastmasters and went to the meetings faithfully over several years. It gave me the opportunity to not only meet new people (the club was at work, so I met people from around the company) but also to practice speaking in a safe environment. I learned about how to structure a speech for maximum impact, how to avoid filler words (um, uh, you know, etc.), and practicing speaking repeatedly helped me “face the fear and do it anyway”.

From 30 people to 30,000 

Many years later I joined a group at work that was focused on helping people around the company better understand how their work impacts our customers. As part of that group of 100 we were divided into groups of 10 to talk about how our department impacts our customers.

Now I might work in IT, but I’ve always researched the business and industry to better understand how technology will impact our customers, business, and competitive edge. Without technology, we had no product. There would be no website, no phone support, no mail processing, nothing. So I had a very clear understanding of how key technology is in the end product we provide to our customers. I used a story from my own life – my husband almost dying of septic shock a few years before – to illustrate the many hidden ways technology would support a family like mine. It was a short five-minute speech to the group of 10, and they all felt it was a powerful one, but I figured that would be the end of it.

Well, my speech had been overheard by the person leading the overall group. She asked if I could give it again to the entire group, because she thought it was so powerful. So I got up in front of the group and gave the speech again. Same result – afterwards everyone came up to me and told me how good it was, how powerful, and how they better understood how their job impacts customers, even when they don’t interact directly. I thought that was great, and then went back to my day job.

Just like in collegeI thought that was the end – but it wasn’t. Almost a year later I was asked by that same person to give a similar speech again. But this time, it was to the entire company. I said “Yes!”, excited to have the opportunity. Over the next few weeks, the reality of what I had agreed to sunk in. I was going to be part of our company’s quarterly town hall. That the CEO runs. And the executive team sits in the front row. So it was going to be the CEO speaking, top executives, and little old me. You want to talk about terrified!

So I did this speech the way I hadn’t done one in a very long time – I wrote it out, and re-wrote it, and re-wrote it. You see, usually when I speak it’s more off the cuff, or at most I have a few bullets written down to remind me of key points. I don’t typically write down an entire speech, but I didn’t dare do off the cuff for a speech of this magnitude. I only had five minutes, I had to tell my story and insert key talking points about the group and its mission. I was going to be in an auditorium full of a thousand people, including the top executives, and with tens of thousands watching remotely through a live stream. It was going to be my chance to impact thousands upon thousands, and have them remember me. I didn’t want to be remembered for tripping and falling flat on my face, or making a fool of myself, or forgetting my speech.

After writing, I practiced it to death, until I could recite the whole thing from memory without pausing or stopping. Since it was only five minutes I could squeeze in practice almost anywhere – and I sure did.  I practiced it while trying to go to sleep, in the car on the way to work, at lunchtime, every time I could.

Finally, the day arrived. I couldn’t sleep well the night before because I was so nervous. Tossing and turning, trying to forget what was coming tomorrow, I finally was able to fall asleep. But I needed to get to work early to practice at 7 AM with our Chief Marketing Officer (the other kind of CMO besides the Chief Mom Officer). I went down to the auditorium and met with her and the head of PR for our company. I stood in the empty auditorium and gave the speech. They both nodded, as if I’d done a good job but nothing earth shattering. I went to my desk to nervously wait the few hours until it started.

I went back down to the auditorium – and it wasn’t empty anymore. It was full of people and getting more full by the minute. I had to sit in the front since I was a speaker, and then…the CEO, CIO, and other executives arrived. The CEO knew who I was (eeek!) and shook my hand. Then it started. I could hardly pay attention because I was running through the speech over and over again in my head. I remember at one point looking over to my left and meeting the CEO’s gaze, and he grinned at me. I’m sure I looked nervous as hell. But that made me smile, and then…it was my turn.

I got up and went to the front of the auditorium. The lights were so bright I couldn’t see to the back of the room. I could see the front row just fine, with the CEO and CIO sitting there, so I decided to focus on the back of the room where I couldn’t see anyone. I gave my speech, everyone clapped, and it was done. All that time and worry for five minutes! Then I sat back down, relieved that my part was done.

But it wasn’t over. The person who followed me made a joke about not wanting to follow that speech because it was so powerful. When the CEO got back up to speak, he praised my speech, used it in his follow-up remarks, and jokingly said he should take me in front of the board to give that speech again. Then the town hall wrapped up, he stayed to talk to me for a minute and take a picture, then it was all done and I left.

Those five minutes had impacted tens of thousands of people. The speech was posted on our company intranet a few days later. I got e-mail after e-mail from people I knew – and people I didn’t. Our CIO wrote me a thank you note (!) and I had people coming up to me for weeks afterwards telling their own story, or how what I had said touched them. Even today, two years later, when I meet executives, other senior leaders, and new peers many of them know who I am – all because of that speech.

What You Can Learn – 6 Lessons on Public Speaking

Maybe the thought of getting up and speaking in front of ten people terrifies you, and you can’t even imagine tens of thousands. Maybe that’s not something that you even want to do. But if you advance far enough in your career you’ll need to learn to speak in some capacity, likely to larger crowds of people. So what can you take away from my story?

  • Speaking well has a powerful impact – This is the lesson I learned starting way back in college. When you speak well you have a powerful impact on your audience. You can change the way they view the world, you can persuade them, you can even change their life. Writing can have the same impact as speaking, but many people learn better by listening than by reading
  • Learn to speak even when it’s not your job – Looking back at my career now, joining Toastmasters for a few years was one of the best things I ever did. Even though my job then didn’t require it, I knew one day I would want to have those skills. Hours of time preparing speeches, speaking to my club, having the “ah” counter tell me just how many filler words I was using, getting feedback – it all came in handy one day in a way I could never have imagined. We all get opportunities to speak in front of groups, and practicing in a safe environment helps ensure you’ll never say “no” due to fear. Remember that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. When you’re prepared you can say “yes” to an opportunity that you otherwise might turn down
  • Practice, practice, practice – You should practice both off-the-cuff speaking as well as prepared speaking. How can you do that when your job doesn’t give you the opportunity? You seek out those opportunities. You join Toastmasters at work (or after work) and spend a few hours a month practicing those skills. You volunteer at work for something where you’ll have a chance to speak in front of small groups. You talk to your manager about speaking on a topic during a team meeting, or with your leadership on speaking to a larger group about a project you’ve worked on. Or maybe you volunteer with one of your kids activities or school to speak about a topic. Since most people don’t want to speak, many times they’ll be relieved that you want to and you’ll get a chance to practice your skills. Win/Win!
  • Get rid of filler words – Have you ever listened to someone speaking on TV, the radio, or at work that just can’t go 30 seconds without saying “um”, “uh”, “you know”, “like” or other filler words? Have you done this yourself? It’s very common when speaking in front of a group to use filler words because you’re nervous. But it’s distracting from your message – people aren’t paying attention to what you’re saying if you’re using a filler word often. How do you stop this? Toastmasters uses the concept of an “ah” counter to count your filler words. You can borrow this concept by asking a friend or co-worker to count them for you, so you can get an idea of how often you do this. To get rid of them, it takes practice, mindfulness (paying attention to how often you’re doing this), and slowing down. Instead of using a filler word, and most importantly-you teach yourself to pause instead.
  • Use a powerful story to grab your audience – No matter what you’re talking about, writing about, or in general communicating to others, a powerful story grabs people and makes them pay attention. Now you need to tell that powerful story well – with pauses in the right places, and the right intonations in your voice. I once saw a woman speaking in a town hall (not the one I was in) who opened with a powerful story about her husband’s illness and restriction to a wheelchair. But as she told the story, her voice and expression were both flat. Also her story was so powerful that it distracted from her message instead of helping you to remember it. You need to be able to tie your story to the topic, weave it into your speech, include it in your conclusion. The story will help your audience remember what you’re talking about as long as its relevant and you can draw a direct parallel to your topic. Don’t tell a powerful story just because the story is good, but it has nothing to do with your topic, or all people will remember is the story itself.
  • Say yes to big, scary opportunities – Remember that for many people their fear of public speaking is larger than their fear of death. If you’re someone who can say “yes” with confidence to speaking opportunities, even when you’re scared, even when it’s something on a scale you haven’t done before, you will be remembered. You’ll get more opportunities to speak and to present information. “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is a great tip for life and your career.

Check out these awesome other resources to help you improve your public speaking skills:

27 Tips to Overcome your Fear of Public Speaking

20 Public Speaking Tips from the Best TED Talks

Public Speaking for Normal People

10 Tips for Improving your Public Speaking Skills

Practice Public Speaking at Home

Do you fear public speaking more than death? Is it something you’ve always wanted to improve or do you want to run away at the thought of speaking in front of a group? Is speaking “no big deal” to you and you have a tip to pass along? Let me know in the comments.

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