Up until a few years ago, public speaking and presentations had always been a dreaded but necessary part of my professional engineering career. The thought of stumbling over words, stuttering and general embarrassment gave me panicky jitters every time I stood to speak in front of a group of people. We’re talking grade-A stage fright: knees knocking and stomach butterflies. The potential abject humiliation before my peers was often agonizing.
However, one presentation in particular stands out as my breakout foray into fearless public speaking. It was at an international employer seminar I attended for three weeks while in the United Kingdom. At a dinner banquet, I was asked to provide a highlight summary on the seminar and the most important elements that could be taken away from it. My summary was to follow the CEO’s speech on our corporation’s global visions and expectations.
The CEO gave a very thoughtful and lively speech on the executive viewpoint relative to the seminar. It was very well-delivered in good statesmanlike fashion; he had done his homework, and obvious good rehearsal had provided the necessary polish and savvy to entertain and inform the audience, which numbered (gulp!) 400 people. Of that crowd, at least two dozen were prestigious international corporate executives, and at least that many more were university professors and provosts.
Now it was my turn. My preparation was not so thorough. In fact, I had prepared only one index card with a few scribbled musings and unorganized thoughts the night before. The outline for my entire speech had been cobbled together in less than 15 minutes and stuffed into my breast pocket. I was utterly unready, and the butterflies and cold sweat began. Now, in front of these executives, university dignitaries and esteemed European colleagues, I was going to say how nice the weather was, what a great time we had and thank you very much.
I stepped up to the podium, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. About 20 minutes later, I finished and stood amid a raucous ovation, shouts of “Bravo!” and several congratulatory handshakes. I had delivered the speech of my life. What had I said that had been so captivating? Certainly, I had not prepared any special or entertaining material. I had not proofread, edited or rehearsed my speech beforehand. I had not used my reference card; the speech was completely ad-libbed.
In reflection, I realized that I had only shared my personal and even humorous experiences with several individuals, candid observations of the company’s strengths in action and an honest appraisal of my career aspirations in light of the training received. I had simply said what I had felt, and felt what I’d said. This was my newfound public speaking comfort zone.
In our technically advanced, multimedia age, we are swayed by the entertainment factor, presentation content and perfection – so much so that we neglect or overlook that honesty and heartfelt genuineness in verbal conversations will always connect with people at a much higher level.
I think Abraham Lincoln had it right. My most effective, meaningful communication times have been those when my heart was laid bare, whether in front of a noisy, crowded auditorium, or over a quiet cup of coffee with my spouse.