We’re still only two weeks in, but for me, one of the best things about The Data School is that it focuses on soft skills as well as hard skills. I believe that this is the right way to prepare us for the task ahead – we’ll never be good consultants if we’re not able to communicate clearly. Of course, soft skills are not only about communication, but communication is a big part of it.
There are loads of articles on the internet, books, online and offline courses you can take. They’ll all suggest some basic tips on how to master the art of public speaking, from knowing your audience, using hand gestures to facilitate communication, looking people in the eye, avoiding reading from a script and so on. I have to confess that I’m not very much into those, just because we’re all different people. We all come from different backgrounds; we’ve all had different experiences, and react in different ways when exposed to our fears.
The ones I find most interesting are actually the accounts of people who, in one way or another, confronted their fear of public speaking and managed to find some sort of comfort zone. Here‘s one. And here‘s another.
This is (yet another) a personal tale, this time about my journey towards being a little more comfortable while speaking in public.
Why public speaking anyway?
Whether it’s for a room full of people we’ve never seen before or for our team only, more often than not there will be times when we’ll have to face a crowd of onlookers hearing us speak.
Coming from an engineering background, I never had much training on either public speaking or soft skills in general. Every time there was a presentation, it would be a nightmare – even if it was just before my classmates. It would always be a disaster, either because I wasn’t prepared (and I’d stutter and rush through the presentation, sometimes leaving out the most important details), or because I was too prepared (and I’d also stutter while sounding like a machine, coughing up a previously memorised speech).
During my University years, I was never able to overcome the fear or become good at anything that involved speaking to a crowd, which is a significant part of the reason why I took an unpredictable turn when I was looking for my first professional experience.
The traineeship program that I joined was for a company that outsourced contact centre services. It had a big focus on soft skills development. We had some basic training, but the most crucial part was that we would have to speak in public pretty much every day while we were there. We’d be leading teams, so we had to be prepared for that.
I remember the first presentation I had to deliver. Every Thursday there was a 20-minute review of the results from the previous week. I was placed in the middle of the operations floor, surrounded by people on all sides. I was new there. It was a big team. I had probably 80 or 90 people staring directly at me from every angle. It was the most hostile setting I’d ever been confronted with. I was trapped. With some difficulty, I managed to go through with it. I was sweating, and I was shaking. I had trouble placing my voice. To this day I have no idea how bad it was for the people who were watching.
The thing is, I survived. As terrifying as that experience was, it showed me that even in the worst of scenarios, it’s really not that bad. You live to fight another day.
The first thing I learned from that experience was never again let the setting catch me off guard if I could help it. The next presentation I did was in another area of the operations floor that I studied beforehand. I made sure that I would be facing everyone instead of having everyone surrounding me. One thing I also learned was to make the best of my surroundings to help me feel at ease. The screen that I used for most of my presentations was sitting on top of a shelved structure that I could lean on if I needed to. It made me feel safer and more relaxed.
To overcome the awkwardness of just standing in front of an audience, I started letting my hands run free while speaking when I felt the need to do so. It was more unconscious than deliberate at first. However, the feedback I got was that it was making me seem more natural, so I started using it to my advantage. Holding a pen in my hands while speaking was also helpful to achieve this. After a while, I was comfortable enough to let the pen go.
The next step was to be able to get out of the comfort zone I had built for me and starting to walk around in front of the screen and engaging with my audience. Before presenting the results, I would ask them leading questions. I’d go back to the points discussed in previous presentations. At first, it didn’t go well. It probably sounded a bit fake; maybe my tone wasn’t right. I mostly got stares instead of answers, and all my instincts told me to retract to my comfort zone. Fear was again taking control.
The downside was that I had to keep doing that at least every week. Sometimes, multiple times in one day. It was exhausting. I decided I had to make it work; otherwise, I’d eventually be like a kid that fakes a tummy ache to avoid going to school. I started asking direct feedback to some people in my audience, after the presentations. It was the best thing I did.
It was, it turns out, my tone that was setting me back – it looked like I was angrily asking questions to the audience.
With time, I managed to get to the point where I wanted to be – I felt free to start testing my limits and actively sought to be confronted with discomfort. I know I still have a lot more to improve, and I’m probably not even halfway there in terms of becoming a good public speaker. The discomfort when facing a crowd is still there. But at least now I know a little better how to manage that.