Confidence trick

The other night I was doing this thing, talking to university students about writing and we got on to how difficult it is to pitch to people. I offered that in so many ways it’s just like talking to people and said, for example, you didn’t find it hard asking me that question, did you? The young woman I gestured at said yes, she did. She wasn’t kidding: in that instant I could see the nerves.

But I wouldn’t have known before: she found me and she asked what she wanted to know. “Just keep pretending like that,” I told her. “It’s what I do.” For a longer, more considered and frankly more confident version, take a look at this TEDtalk from Dr Ivan Joseph.

How often should you breathe?

You go right ahead and breathe all you like. You don’t need anyone’s permission. But a singer turned public speaking coach says:

How often should you breathe? At the very least, at the end of every sentence! If you are prone to rushing through your speech or presentation, then practice breathing at every punctuation mark — it will force you to slow down.

As a former opera singer, I know how much breathing affects how a voice sounds. Singers must use deep breathing in order to project a strong voice across a crowded auditorium to reach every single person in the audience. I never thought that this skill would help me once I left the field of opera — until I had to give my first speech. Then, I realized how much my operatic training made me a powerful public speaker.

Now, having taught public speaking and presentation skills for over a decade, I can say with confidence that the ability to harness your breath is one of the most important and least taught areas within public speaking. It’s critical when you’re speaking up in a meeting and it’s crucial when you’re giving a speech or presentation. It’s one of the key elements of executive presence.

Breathing Is the Key to Persuasive Public Speaking – Allison Shapira, Harvard Business Review (30 June 2015)

One of my problems is racing on to the next sentence and the next. It sometimes comes across as enthusiasm and that does get transmitted, but more often it’s just hard to hear what I said. Read the full piece.

Get people to talk

Clearly, I am a world expert on speaking to groups of people: I just did my 184th event since I started counting in late 2012. No question, I know everything. But I do know what it’s like getting to the end and saying “So, any questions?” before getting silence. And more silence. And a closing “well, um, er” from me.

I don’t get that so much now and I think it’s down to three things I’ve been trying.

1) Sometimes I’ve said very early on that we’ll be having a Q&A at the end but called it Question & Argument

2) When it’s a talk, when I’m specifically there to speak for an hour or whatever instead of working with people, I’ll say early on that there will be questions and answers – but that I’ll be asking them the questions. It does tend to get a laugh but then it also leaves you with a much better ending because instead of “So, any questions?” you can say “Right, my turn” and then you ask something. It has to be relevant to the group, has to be tied to what the talk is about, but you got there early and nattered with everyone you could find, you’ve got this.

3) Look foolish. So far this has only come up in workshops where I’ve been talking about quite specific technical things but each time it’s begun because an attendee has mentioned having a developer or someone else doing their technical stuff for them. I tell them that if their developer says something different to me, they should listen to him or her – but also do please tell me. I say this because I mean it – a developer will know more than I do – but also it tells the entire audience that you’re fine with being corrected, that you’re up for being told new things.

I said you look foolish but really it’s key that you look fine with being foolish – and that you actually are fine with it. Lecturing at someone about a point and then letting them change your mind about something isn’t just the right thing to do, it oddly demonstrates a command of your subject. You’re not defensive, you’re accepting and questioning, you’re deep into this topic and seeking new ideas that you are able to examine and build on.

I’ve also fallen over chairs a few times and that was deliberate, it was, it was.