The terrifying beauty of speech

Two weeks ago I walked to the front of a room in Dunedin and looked up. 50 mayors from across New Zealand blinked back at me. I took a breath. Then I started to speak. And that was the moment when the room’s expectations of me exploded into the reality of whatever came out of my mouth.

Public speaking. There is a myriad of articles online about how to do it. Yet we each speak in public every single day. Unless you live under a rock in the mountains (sounds quite appealing actually). What can be so hard about it?

Something I find rather fascinating about our bodies is that we have all these unconscious operating systems going on. It is a bit crazy when you stop to think about it really. Like would you be so eager to jump into the driving seat of a car if it had the potential to take control of the gearstick whenever you pulled into Courtaney Place? No way! (Well, I certainly wouldn’t.)

Yet a similar loss of control happens with our own bodies. Example: put a gal in front of a roomful of Very Important People and suddenly I’m waaaaaay too hot, uncontrollably yawning (wtf?) and the victim of a twisting stomach. This is not what I want my body to be doing two minutes before I step into the glaring limelight.

So I guess that explains the mountain of unsolicited advice about public speaking floating around. But this blog post is not one of those pieces of advice. If you want to learn how to speak in public, what you really want to learn is how to Talk like Ted. And if you are really burning to know but can’t be bothered looking beyond this post, well (a) you must not actually be burning to know otherwise you would be grabbing the book on Amazon right now; and (b) I’m no public speaking expert, so you’ve come to the wrong place.

Instead, I’m going to tell you a story. It ends with the mayors. But it started with an oblivious me.

When I was working as a lawyer, we had these sessions in-house for all the female juniors (a nod to this). In one session we were split into groups to discuss worker personalities. During reflection time I agreed to speak on behalf of my group. I thought I had nailed it.

Not so. After the session, our Learning and Development Manager pulled me aside and asked if I would be open to some ‘confidence coaching’, i.e., I suck at public speaking. What a bombshell! The worst thing about it was that once we got into the coaching, I was forced to face up to the zillion ‘um’s peppering my speech, assuming I had the guts to speak up in a client meeting at all.

Fast forward eight months and I was jumping in front of a bunch of strangers to sell them the idea that $2,000 worth of hiking + impeding torrential rain = enviable adventure. I felt the shift in my public speaking. I would make direct eye contact, use ridiculously big gestures (probably to convey my excitement about kea, or some equally geeky nature thing), and walk away feeling energised.

I got a heap of feedback from my walkers over my six months’ of guiding. And something that came up time and again was that they loved my presentations. They could sense my enthusiasm, and it turned into their enthusiasm. Long gone were the days were I would be retreating from a client meeting having barely uttered a word.

Fast forward another few months. Enter the mayors. I was presenting about the programme I run at Inspiring Stories. I genuinely believe in the kaupapa we are delivering. I genuinely believe the rangatahi I work with are amazing. And again, by sharing my enthusiasm, it turned into the mayors’ enthusiasm.

So instead of reflecting on how to give a presentation, I find myself reflecting on how to tell if my job makes my heart sing. And I’ve decided that if I can get others excited about what I am doing, I must be doing something right.

Anna Watsondunedin