Demand Dignity in Public Speaking Training (c)

by : Melissa Mayers Lewis

Mandy*, a bright, attractive professional woman, had a fear of speaking in front of groups. Recognizing that her feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness were limiting her potential, she showed up for a presentation skills class filled with trepidation. In the class, the students spent the morning listening to the instructor explain the rules of public speaking. That afternoon, they gave their presentations to the group.

After nervously waiting through five other talks, Mandy took her place at the front of the room-her heart pounding and hands shaking. She plowed through her 10-minute presentation with her mind in an out-of-body blur. When she finished, Mandy obeyed the instructor's direction to remain front-and-center to receive her feedback. Comments started with a few "That's a good color on you" and "You had good eye contact" platitudes, but then the real critique began. She used way too many "ums." She shifted her weight too much. Her hair was in her eyes. Her voice was too soft. Most of all, her excessive gestures simply had to be brought under control! Luckily, the instructor had a gesture-reduction plan. He playfully took a piece of rope from a cardboard box, used it to bind Mandy's hands behind her back, and had her give the entire presentation over again.

Did this experience help Mandy overcome her feelings of vulnerability and self-consciousness? Of course not. She shuffled home feeling humiliated and victimized. Rather than compassionately working with Mandy as the vulnerable, dignified, gifted human being she is, the instructor treated her like a horse whose spirit and wild habits had to be broken with ropes. Literally.

Previous Training As A Source of Fear

In my 15 years of coaching public speaking, I've worked with hundreds of anxiety-ridden speakers. Surprisingly, they often referred to previous speaking training as a source of their fear. They've been badgered, nit-picked, and intimidated-all stemming from a well-intentioned belief that if you fix the mechanics, confidence will follow.

For many people, this approach is, at the very least, ineffective-and it can damage one's sense of dignity. If you see the audience as the enemy, mastering the art of the upward-hand-sweep-with-the-dramatic-flourish will not make those faces any less threatening. Even worse, this mechanical approach can be devastating if you feel insecure to begin with, then walk away with an even longer list of deficiencies to correct.

Of course, there's value in noticing distracting habits and getting them under control. If you're already comfortable in the spotlight, great; go ahead and fine-tune the mechanics. But if you're like Mandy and anxiety is your primary issue (and believe me, you're not alone), a mechanical approach may do more harm than good.

What You Need from Training

So what do you need, if not the mechanics? Here are four things you'd be wise to demand from your training session:

1. Work on the cause of your discomfort, not merely the symptoms.

Most people say that one-on-one or in a small group, they're comfortable with speaking; they only feel awkward when speaking to a large group. If that's the case, there's good news: You don't have to work on your speaking; you have to work on getting comfortable being the center of attention. It may not seem like a significant shift but it is. Speakers tend to work only on what they're putting out to the audience (content, appearance, visual aids, voice). Often, the real work is learning to let in what's coming from audience members, namely their attention.

2. Demand a dignified, healthy process, not just a good outcome.

In Mandy's case, even without ropes, she would probably gesture less the next time she spoke, but is that really success? Though the end result of her training was fewer gestures, the teacher cut a swath of emotional destruction on the way. Desired ends don't justify humiliating means. Always demand to be treated with respect as you work to develop your speaking skills.

3. Insist on privacy regarding your video.

A common tool in presentation skills training is video, but your video is no one's business but yours. I have seen accomplished, respected professionals shrink in horror as their video was shown to and critiqued by the entire class. All learning value was lost because they were too mortified by the public display to learn anything. Besides, it's a waste of time. The class just saw you present the real thing. Why make them watch you twice? In my workshops, students go to the fun and funky "Learning Lounge" where they have a private video monitor with earphones, snacks, a comfortable chair, cozy quilts, and a soothing foot massager. The lighthearted atmosphere takes the sting out of self-awareness so students can concentrate on learning. Nothing good comes from public humiliation, so if you're not comfortable with a public video viewing, stand up for your right to privacy.

4. Feel free to explore your gifts.

"Stay inside the lines." Remember that one? You got a new box of crayons and wanted to go crazy with them, but a teacher or parent squashed your creativity by making you color inside pre-existing lines. The same happens in speaking. Max, a former student of mine, had always been told to follow the rules as a speaker, so he concentrated on his voice, his stance, his visual aids, etc. When given permission to forget the rules and speak from his heart, a delightful dry sense of humor emerged that made him much more likeable and, therefore, more persuasive. He incorporated this gift into a presentation that was already effective in the traditional sense, but now had a wonderful new dimension that would have been missed had he not played "outside the lines."

Mechanics have their place, but you may need to go beyond nit-picking mechanics. You're a unique human being with gifts, talents, stories, fears, dreams, and heart. Don't settle for anything less than a dignified, compassionate approach.

Even horses deserve that.

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.

(c) 2002, Upside Down Speaking