3 Lessons I Learned in Communications Class

3 Things I Learned About My Public Speaking

From the time I refused to speak or smile during a childhood photo shoot, I knew public speaking was not a natural gift. So did everyone around me. The thing about speaking in public is that you can’t really get around doing it forever.

I am not talking about being a keynote speaker at a super hip and relevant conference. I’m definitely not referring to giving a TED talk or a SUE talk because I pretty much worship the ground those people walk on and their ability to communicate clearly and concisely. What I am talking about is the more normal situations many of us find ourselves in like giving a presentation at work, being called on during a meeting to give an answer to a question you didn’t know was coming, or meeting an influential person for the first time and wanting to make a good impression.

When I was first promoted to manager at the rental car company I worked at fresh out of college, they had a hazing ritual for all new managers. When you walked into your first manager’s meeting, with about 20 other branch managers, five to six area managers, and the big boss - the regional manager, they let you know you were going to be called upon to sing an acapella song. Let me back up a smidge. Usually, they don’t give you any warning, but my boss was nice enough to tell me as I was walking into the building, giving me about 20 minutes to come up with a tune. [Insert panic.]

I believe I lost about five pounds in sweat over the following twenty minutes because the only thing worse than speaking to a group when you’re unprepared is singing to a group when you’re unprepared. 

My mind went blank.

Every English word I knew was gone.

I ended up singing a theme song to a tv show from the 1970s. It’s too embarrassing to tell you what it was.

As soon as I finished, I died a little more inside, realizing that it was out there and that’s what my fellow managers would remember about me. (GULP) More sweating ensued.

Many years have passed since that traumatic moment in the spotlight, mostly filled with me trying to avoid the spotlight until recently. My confidence has grown along with my age and I have intentionally sought to improve my communication ability as well as learning to think and speak on my feet, processing information more quickly than is natural for this introvert’s brain.

I recently participated in a 2-day class on public speaking. We were given a book to read ahead of time, guidelines on the structure for this particular style of speaking, and a few weeks to prepare. The first day each of the seven participants stood in front of the class and shared their speech, ranging anywhere from 15-25 minutes while the others in the group made notes and prepared for immediate feedback. We took the feedback home, recalibrated and came back the second day for Take 2.

This format no longer frightens me. Instead, I welcome it and prefer putting myself out there as much as possible when I know I can get feedback to help me improve for future communication. If I don’t take a chance, I’m never going to be better. This goes for every area of my life.

After my 23-minute speech, I wasn’t surprised by any of the comments made by my classmates. The following observations are areas I know I always need to work on and hopefully they will provide guidance for you in your communication style and development.

1. Increase audience engagement with your stories.

I have a difficult time connecting with my own feelings and emotions. That comes through when I’m writing and speaking. For the most part, I can get all the details across, but I struggle with drawing people in to a feeling or a deep thought and helping them really understand what the experience was like. 

In everyday life I constantly remind myself to be more human and less “Dr. Spock-ish”. Even when I do well initially in a conversation or the beginning of the day, I need to periodically remind my brain to engage my heart and soul in what I do.

Sometimes I can start with a heartfelt story and have the best intentions to follow through, then I get to the end and realize I disconnected somewhere along the way and it turned into a technical explanation.

When you are speaking to people individually or to a group, they want to connect with you. You have the platform for a sentence or a minute or a session, so bring them into your world and intentionally take yourself into theirs through your story. Your big idea and your three main points will stick with them when you engage wholly.

2. Process through an idea or concept all the way to the end.

One of my many negative traits is that I am an interrupter. I work diligently to stay aware of this and sometimes literally bite my tongue until a person is finished talking before I open my big pie-hole. My sister used to get so frustrated because not only would I interrupt her, I would start a new train of thought indicating I hadn’t been paying attention and probably wasn’t interested in what she was saying.

From what I remember, that was never the case. My spastic thoughts were running crazy and before one train of thought was done, I was already moving on to the next.

When I’m communicating, that sucks. I’ve have a great idea that I write about for a while and as that develops it shifts into a related, but new, thought pattern. What that means is that when I speak and write I have awesome things to share (at least they are awesome in my head), but no one ever knows what those are because I only get about half of the concept out before moving on to the next.

I’m working to not only fully complete what I’m trying to convey, but ensure that I’m making it relevant to my intended audience. Slowing down and staying in the moment, or thought, is a practice I’m learning to implement. In smaller groups, this is easier to practice because you can easily read their expressions or body language to tell if they are grasping what you’re saying.

3. Conveying the most important point.

Of course you know what you’re talking about, but just because it makes perfect sense to you doesn’t mean everyone else has reached that conclusion, too. 

I’m the one who has the idea of what to communicate. I spend days or weeks mulling over content, so it’s already deep inside me by the time I get to share it with anyone else. And yet, I still end up with audience members who have a fuzzy idea of what my main points are.

Think of it like a circle of communication. The speech or document as a whole is a circle and you need to wrap up what you start. Within the whole, your bullet points each need to be seen as a loop where you start with the idea, provide supporting statements and wrap up that point in a way that is obvious. It’s not a scavenger hunt and you don’t want the people listening to you digging around trying to make sense of what they think you may have said.

I love communicating, whether it’s through writing, speaking, podcasting, or any other medium I find. That doesn’t mean I’m good at it, but that is where GRIT comes in. I am committed to improving in as many areas of my life as I have time for. I will continue putting my best foot forward, placing myself in environments where I can be assessed and critiqued, and practice as often as I need to.

What have you learned about your own communication style?

How do you get feedback from others?

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(Photo by Nycholas Benaia on Unsplash)

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