Death is Number Two

Dear Reader,

Jerry Seinfeld famously said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two.” As a work opportunity, I participated in a two-part ‘introduction into presentation’ skills course. On day one, eleven employees were in attendance. When we were asked if public speaking was our worst fear, a little more than a quarter of the room meekly raised a hand. While many of us expressed interest in bettering our public speaking and presenting skills, none of us admitted to be terribly comfortable with it. During the course we discussed a few techniques that would help us become more competent presenters, however, the majority of the course was spent on practicing in small groups and in front of the class (yikes). 

The timing of the course was opportune for me as I had just finished the book Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo. While the course was effective at pushing us out of comfort zones and providing us with individualized feedback, the Talk Like TED book gave far more and insightful information about presentation techniques.

Fittingly, the course began with the viewing of a TED Talk. We watched a true master explain the value and skill of ‘listening.’ The speaker stood planted on the stage, gestured deliberately, and articulated in a confident, yet conversational tone. After we discussed some helpful techniques (including showing “AWE,” authority [be an expert on your subject], warmth [be friendly], and energy [inject some enthusiasm into the talk]), we were asked to prepare a 60-second presentation on something that we were knowledgeable about. Crunched for time, I gave a talk similar to the topic of one of my blog posts. The exercise was difficult. We were all a bit nervous to stand in front of even a small and non-threatening audience. Our nerves manifested in shaky hands, fast talking, and tripping over our words.

On day two of the course, we were expected to give a 3 to 5 min-talk in front of the class. I ended up presenting on stress (a topic I address frequently on this blog). The instructor recorded our presentations on our personal phones so we could understand our presentation strengths and weaknesses. My presentation went relatively well, however, I realized that I have two obvious weaknesses that make me uncomfortable to watch. One, I speak rather quickly, and two, my eyes dart ALL OVER THE PLACE. I was energetic and spoke passionately about my topic, however, my erratic eye contact was distracting. I know that I do not make the best eye contact in a normal setting, yet I was surprised to see how my lids flitted upwards and sideways at quick, irregular intervals.

While public speaking can be scary, it is an important skill that we should all have under our belts. Effective presenting integrates elements of storytelling, public speaking, research about your subject, and (if you’re skilled) bits of humor and pathos. From the Talk Like TED book, I learned that compelling presentations are passionate. When you are passionate about the subject, you are able to generate natural enthusiasm into your speech. Successful presenters are also masterful craftsmen. They deliver information (new and old) in novel, creative ways. They insert humor into serious subjects and recite statistics in interesting and unexpected ways. These people speak like experts on their subject, yet they remain conversational and inviting even when they utter the jaw-dropping moment at the climax of their talk. These are the people that you are eager to shake hands with and exchange a few with after the presentation.

After reading the book and taking a 6-hour course, I am, of course, no expert speaker. Just like any other skill, public speaking and presenting take practice. Getting up in front of the class and telling my story made me feel uncomfortable. However, pushing ourselves and embracing challenges is the only way we learn and grow. If speaking in front of an audience makes you uncomfortable, Dear Reader, I suggest that you do more of it.



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