Network Leaders as Speakers: Considering Speaking

July 2018
Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative (RWHC)

Author: Jo Anne Preston, Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative

This article was written by Jo Anne Preston, Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative for the July 2018 edition of “Networking News.” The Network Technical Assistance Project is funded by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through a contract to Rural Health Innovations, LLC, a subsidiary of the National Rural Health Resource Center.

A very common fear is speaking in front of others. True leadership means facing this fear head on. Read on to learn strategies that will help you face your fears, as well as effectively deliver your message!

An article I wrote in November, 2010, SO WHAT you have to make a presentation!, includes a list of ten tips to help you become a more effective speaker, no matter who the audience is. The best tip? Speak MORE. While nothing replaces experience, there are many practical strategies to make public speaking less painful.

Consider the following strategies to turn your future presentations up a notch.

1. Ensure your content is in alignment with the needs of your audience.

We tend to worry so much about what to say, but what we really need to be concerned with what it is the listener needs to hear. Consider how your content will align with what will make your audience’s jobs easier, build their skillsets, and answer their questions. When we speak from the perspective of the audience vs. what we want to say, it shapes the content into a more participant-engaged format.

2. Align the message with the messenger.

I recently attended a presentation on the topic “Authenticity in Work Teams.” While the content was adequate, the speaker lost me because his delivery came off very inauthentic. I sensed he was trying to convince the audience, a group of professional speakers, that he was not nervous. Hear me out; the problem was not that he was nervous.  Most audiences will be very forgiving of this fact.  The problem was that he was talking about authenticity but did not authentically address the elephant in the room. I believe it was Walter Cronkite who said, “It’s normal to have butterflies; the trick is getting them to fly in formation.”  The consequence was that the message and the messenger were out of sync, and it hurt his credibility.

3. If there is an elephant in the room, acknowledge it!

What would have helped in the above situation? Simply addressing it. He could have conveyed some humor about the situation, and the whole feel of the presentation would have changed. Humans are wired for empathy.  It is likely that everyone in the room would have been able to place themselves in his situation, which would have opened their hearts to him, helping put him at ease. When the message and the messenger are in alignment, it is powerful and authentic. The point of my example above is not that we should always speak up about being nervous. In this case, though, it was completely relevant. 

4. Be YOU, not someone else.

How do you authentically communicate so that you will connect with your audience? Be your own person. In other words, know your own strengths. When I co-present with my colleague, Cella, I want to be her. She’s funny, flamboyant, loud (in a good way!), physically theatrical, and can effectively dial in to the key point of her message. In contrast, I fear I am too cerebral, long-winded, reserved, dry, and serious. I’ve learned immeasurably from her and have surely lightened up, but I’m still me. When I try too hard to be like her, I fall flat. Rather, consider the following:

  • What is your personality type? What are your gifts? What are your strengths? What is NOT you?
  • Get ok with YOU. Cella has shared that she admires my speaking as well, therefore, we both bring individual strengths to the table. You can’t avoid speaking and expect to grow as a professional, so find YOUR OWN niche.
  • Choose a technique or strength you admire from another speaker.  Experiment with it…see how it goes. For example, one thing I have adapted by watching Cella is to move around a room more when I speak, especially a big group, so that I can more closely connect to participants sitting further away. This technique has worked for me, so I continue to do so.

5. Forgive yourself.

Some of Cella’s techniques I have tried have failed miserably. To break up the sitting time in a workshop, Cella will get her audience up and dancing to the song I Like to Move It Move It. Not only am I uncomfortable asking my audience to dance, they pick up on my discomfort and refuse to do it. Therefore, this is a technique I will most likely not do again. Remember, as you develop your own style, you will try some things that fail, and that’s ok. Learn from it and move on.

6. Be in the moment.

Be as present in the moment as you can be. This is where preparation is key. Develop a plan and practice it.  You’ll also want to pay close attention to your audience. While it can be difficult to be fully present when you are nervous, it is possible.  Consider a short pause, look up and around the room, make eye contact with a couple of friendly faces (even if you have to plant them), and fully engage.

7. Breathe.

“Fear is excitement without the breath,” (Fritz Perls). I cannot emphasize this enough; BREATHING IS CRITICAL. Yes, of course you are doing it right now, and will be doing it as long as you live. But when we get nervous, it’s the first thing to go. We hold our breath, we breathe shallowly, and it simply enhances the fear.  You have more control over this than you think. Right now, try exhaling as slowly and fully as you possibly can. See how many seconds you can extend the exhale. Inhale fully and then exhale slowly again. What do you notice? A new sense of peace, calmness and composure?

8. Strive for IMperfection.

TED Talks feature brilliant minds on fascinating topics. But the speakers I have come to enjoy the most are the ones who are less “perfect.” Watching overly-rehearsed speeches with practiced, timed quips can get frustrating. People are messy, not perfect. As a presenter, stop fretting over the occasional um, misplaced word, blush, or stutter. It matters to no one.

9. Prevent sloppiness.

Speaking without practice and full preparation doesn’t even work for the experts. Winging a planned talk may work sometimes, but it can backfire (speaking from experience). Consider giving your talk to a colleague and ask for specific feedback, especially on things that you can work to improve upon.  One common area of improvement is using fewer verbal fillers.  These fillers may include, um, uh, sort of, like, you know, you know what I mean, does that make sense, as well, etc. These words and phrases are not illegal, but they do distract the listener and prevent your important message from being heard.

10. Make use of your audience.

Keep in mind that when you speak, you are stimulating thoughts in your listeners. Give them time to process their thoughts and to participate with you. Think of your audience not as consumers, but as partners in their own learning.  To help prime your audience, consider a partner or triad discussion question that you could pose at the beginning of your talk, or give them a chance to engage that way with the content partway through your presentation. 

11. Accept the impromptu challenge.

If you are asked on the spot to speak about something you have not prepared for, avoid the “deer in the headlights” look.  Consider being prepared with this ready tactic:

  • Thank the previous speaker or participants for things such as the ideas they have shared so far, the opportunity to have had such a lively discussion, asking for your input, or whatever you can thank them for. People generally like to be thanked.
  • If you are unprepared to give an appropriate or thoughtful response to a question, try: “I want to give you a thoughtful response; could you come back to me in a few minutes/at the next meeting so I can consider this a bit?”
  • If you have a response but it is not well formulated, try: “I don’t have a fully ready response, but let me give you some initial thoughts just off the top of my head. I may think of more and will get back to you as I do.”

12.  Skillful Introductions.

Earn the reputation of being the person that others want to have introduce them. Be sure to pronounce their name correctly. IT MATTERS. You may also want to share a couple of brief comments or accomplishments to help solidify the credibility of the person being introduced.

13. Keep trying.

I learned a lot about speaking from being a singer. Certainly, the breathing part – no breath, no sound. For so long I was afraid of making a mistake or going for the big note, worrying I would miss it. A more confident (not necessarily better) singer said to me, “You know what you do if you miss a note? Move on to the next one.” You’ll never hit the notes you don’t try to sing.

14. Set an intention.

Ask yourself the following questions. Why do I want to be a more effective speaker? What will it do for my professional growth to improve? How committed am I to improving? Am I willing to increase my opportunities to speak? Would I consider joining Toastmasters for more practice? Will I ask a trusted peer to give me regular feedback on specific skills I am working on?

Choose one or two strategies and try. Nothing builds confidence more than stepping out and facing your fears.  Confidence will, in turn, make you a strong speaker. Win-win!

Jo Anne Preston is the Workforce and Organizational Development Senior Manager at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative (RWHC) in Sauk City, WI. RWHC serves rural hospitals in WI with a variety of products and services to support and enhance rural healthcare. Jo Anne’s work includes designing and delivering leadership education, leadership coaching, team facilitation and consultation around employee engagement and customer service. She also serves on a variety of workforce-related work groups in Wisconsin to address solutions to rural workforce shortages. She has a M.S. in Educational Psychology/Community Counseling from Eastern Illinois University.