public speaking

Last Friday I was helping a coworker set up for a class he was teaching. It was one we had both taught at least ten times in the past and would teach many more times in the future. Before the class started he was jokingly saying to me and my manager that he was nervous.

You have to understand my coworker–he is larger than life, an incredible presenter, a talented singer, and a Toastmasters competitor. Public speaking is not something new or foreign to him.

“Is it stage fright?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s a good kind of nervous. I always get this way before a class because I don’t want it to be stale. I want it to feel like the first time I’m teaching it for this audience.”

I’m not as naturally talented at public speaking as my coworker is, but I’m good at it and experienced, so I understood what he meant. In my own way, without articulating it as clearly as he did, I know I adopt that same philosophy whenever I’m presenting to an audience.

My taekwondo Master’s “Lease vs. Own” philosophy was ringing true again.

I kept thinking about it the next day in yoga class. As if the universe wanted to remind me of the point my coworker made, the yoga teacher said as we lunged deeply into a pose, “Even if you’ve been doing yoga for ten years or more, do this Warrior II as if it were your very first time.” I’ve been practicing yoga for over two decades, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make a few tweaks and mentally sink into the pose a little more.

Later that day I was playing pool with a friend. A couple was at the next table, and the woman was playing around with trick shots.

“Don’t get too wrapped up in the fancy stuff before you have a good handle on the basics,” her companion warned kindly. “It’s like you’re trying to do a slam dunk before you can do a lay-up.”

Okay, Universe, I get it. I need to write about this.

Whether you’re a corporate trainer, a kindergarten teacher, a yoga instructor, or a taekwondo coach, here are some tips to help keep your information fresh and your audience engaged:

1. Don’t take anything for granted. Even if you know everyone in your audience well or you’ve taught this content more times than you can count, this is a new situation. Don’t shortchange the information or rush through it just because there’s a lot of familiarity. The same goes for the room, equipment, technology, etc. Be prepared…and be a little nervous.

2. Continue to learn. I’ve taught one particular leadership class nearly fifteen times this year, and I happen to like the content. The act of teaching gets a little old, but I’ve kept my mind open to learning something new every time. Like tweaking my Warrior II pose, I’ve been able to hone my presentation and have more insights and find deeper meaning over time that I can share with my audience. The same has been true for teaching taekwondo, especially forms and sparring. I can always learn something new if I’m not just rattling information off by rote.

3. You’re providing a service. In most (not all) situations, your presentation or instruction is not about showing how smart you are. It’s about helping your audience learn. You’re probably relying heavily on your expertise, and that’s fine. Your expertise is a means to provide a service for other people to develop their own expertise. Commit yourself to providing a high quality learning experience and helping them put what you are teaching into practice.

4. Care about your audience. One of the most interesting bits of feedback I ever received was that I’m a “very nurturing” facilitator. I really care about my audience’s well-being and want them to have a good experience. Focusing on them takes me out of the little nagging personal worries that can pop up when I’m presenting. If it’s all about them, then you can take a little heat off yourself.

5. Listen carefully. In some situations, I don’t want my audience to talk–a taekwondo class, for instance. I’d prefer a “Yes, ma’am,” and immediate action following my instructions….but I do allow questions and I do pay attention to facial expressions and body language. Even though I’m the black belt “expert,” it’s still about my students, not me. If they’re not learning and improving, then I’m not doing my job.

In a corporate training situation, listening is just as important as presenting. A question or comment can open up a new way to see the information or to make it realistic and applicable. We may need to pause on a subject for a while or go in a different direction. It’s also beneficial to the audience to learn from their peers. I always like to tell my adult learners that I am just one out of X number of teachers in the room.

If I’m not listening to my audience, then it’s just a one-sided show with no benefit to them.

6. Be thorough…but don’t belabor the point. Make sure your explanations are clear and free of too much rambling or non-related tangents that can dilute the point you’re trying make. Check for understanding (a demonstration or application is ideal) and then move on. Your audience, whether they’re a room full of adult professionals or teenage red belts, will get bored and restless if you are too repetitive. You can always go back to your point to remind and emphasize.

7. Be yourself and be relatable. I definitely have a “stage persona” when I present, but it is not so cardboard and militant that I isolate myself from my audience. I still let my personality shine through–I crack jokes, tell personal stories, and let myself appear relaxed and open so people are not too intimidated to ask questions. Your audience wants to listen to a real person. Have fun with hem. Most of the time you won’t be in a hostile situation. People want to listen to you and learn from you. Think of it as having a long conversation with someone you really like.

This coming Thursday I am teaching that one particular leadership class for a final time, at least for the foreseeable future. As much as I’m looking forward to getting it off my plate for a while, I’m also kind of looking forward to teaching it. I feel like I have a treasure chest full of information that will help my audience improve their performance at work and improve their relationships with their employees…at least that’s what I’m telling my introverted self to power through it.

If my presentation makes their lives and their jobs better, then I know I’ve done my job correctly. Otherwise I’m just a talking head.


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