Q: Recently you mentioned that you have absolutely no fear or anxiety when you speak in public. Can that really be true? Say more. A: Thirty years of public speaking– from symposiums and conferences to my career as a university professor – has taught me one very important lesson – they all end. I have yet to be killed or even mildly injured while giving a presentation. Sure, the first time I spoke in public it was very exciting and even intimidating, but the anxiety and fear were generated in my own mind. It was my emotions that created the fear rather than the circumstances of the speaking opportunity. My life was never in danger, and if people did not agree or did not like what was said, there was very little chance of repercussion. I realized I had survived and moved on to the next one.
Q: So you have Darwinist approach. What advice do you have for others who may not share that perspective? A: Speaking in front of a group of people is easy if you stick with what you know, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know” when questions come up. I find people respect and trust me more than when I set off any BS meter trying hide a lack of understanding or deflect the question. Saying, “I don’t know” is an opportunity to learn and bring that to the next presentation, or in a follow-up with a person, thus extending the interaction. Beware of the Audience “BS” Meter.
Q: And how has that worked for you? A: Very well. Some small percentage of the audience may not like the message or my answer, but I will live to speak in public again! I do take the responsibility of being the voice of the company seriously. My belief is that, in the end, my presentation outcome has little to do with the audience and more to do with my confidence in the material. If you know what you are presenting, then you have little to fear.
Q: What process do you go through to prepare for a presentation? A: It depends on the presentation, for instance today I had to give a department meeting presentation. I had been thinking about the messaging and the content of the meeting for some time, but I finally just sat down today and put it all together and it went well. By the way, this isn’t my strategy for a formal public speaking engagement.
Q: I appreciate your distinction. What is your formal process like? A: First, I focus on the final message I want to deliver and the purpose of the presentation. Once I am very clear about those issues, I develop an outline. If my topic requires a great deal of information and data, I do my research and reading, adjust the outline, and fill in the facts. Once the content is ready, I start to create visuals, reduce words, and focus on the best way to present the material. I am a visual person, and I like telling stories, so when I can tell a story with a picture I am very excited. People have different learning styles, but I have learned that when I design my presentation for my maximal comfort, I do my best work.
Q: So now that we are talking about visual aids, where are you in “the medium is the message” debate? A: Honestly I spend a lot of time on how my presentation looks. My mentor and greatest influence during my PhD program, Ken Knight, PhD, jokingly said to me, “Mack, if you don’t know what you are talking about you better look good doing it.” Coming from a man who had written hundreds of papers, served as an editor-in-chief, was an accomplished public speaker and dedicated to crafting the best message, this was very powerful. His message to me was that no matter how much time you put into the material, people often focus on the visual presentation and the manner in which it is delivered, rather than content. If you present something in a manner that appeals to the crowd, I think you can make a deeper connection and people will pay more attention to what is said. Don’t get me wrong, you have to focus on content. What you present is critical and needs to be provided clearly, truthfully and to the point, but don’t forget to make it appealing.
Q: So if public peaking doesn’t scare you, what does? A: Failure, plain and simple. And not in the way that most people think. I have failed, believe me, I have failed. My fear of failure is more about impact rather than outcome. I don’t want to fail or disappoint those who count on me. I realized long ago, mistakes happen. Some are big, but most are little and I take them as an opportunity to learn and hopefully not make that mistake again. I have failed – to win new jobs, new clients, achieve goals etc…and I am still alive, it hasn’t killed me yet. However, failing those who count on me, disappointing then in some way, well, that hurts.
Q: Can you sum up your approach to fearless presentations in one word? A: Since I have to choose one word, I choose trust. Trust in yourself and your preparation, if you don’t trust in yourself, or the material, it will be apparent during your presentations, and the audience will dismiss the message. Trust me, you will survive.
Thank you Mack – Charlotte