The Survivor's Guide to Business Travel, Part II: Public speaking for women

9 years ago

Back in 2005, at the very first BlogHer conference I was asked to introduce BlogHer's Press and Discussion Policy for bloggers who would undoubtably be taking pictures and live-blogging throughout the event. I was also going to moderate our very first Naked Blogging Panel, with Ronni Bennett, Koan Bremner (who has taken her blog, Multidimensional Me, down since then), and Heather Armstrong.

Now, there were some heavy hitters on that panel, but it was actually the least of my worries. Rather, I agonized over going over the Press Policy. What if I didn't parlay it correctly and our attendees ran amok videotaping other attendees against their wishes? What if the tone of civil disagreement I had to describe ended up falling on deaf ears? What if I wasn't able to accurately define the tone of respect we needed to achieve?

By the end of the day I was having quite a bit of fun, despite almost falling off the stage, not having a speaker ready and having to ad lib for a few minutes, and choking on my chewing gum. I didn't realize that that day would mark the beginning of my speaking career.

I'd done pitch meetings and short presentations before, and I'd done a lot of presenting over the phone. Yet despite being fairly extroverted, I'd always done by best creative work in private, in writing. Unless I became comfortable presenting that work for live audiences I would always be at odds with myself.

Almost three years later I speak every day, be it describing the BlogHer conference over the phone to a new sponsor, sitting on a panel, or explaining what we do to a large audience. I've been forced to get my word out there, myself. This has been a very liberating experience for me, as I'm hard-pressed to find instances when I cannot take advantage of chance encounters or even create new opportunities from my speaking. I feel expressed and able to represent my hard work and my company. I feel heard.

I believe that public speaking, while nerve-wracking for most, is a suitable gateway for women transitioning in their careers from being hardworking and knowledgeable to being powerful. Yet, surprisingly, after the first BlogHer conference in 2005, when we erected a Speakers Wiki for women to increase their visibility, many in the community opted not to use it.

We were very driven to get the word out about the talent in the women's blogosphere and followed up with attendees to find out why they hadn't opted to promote themselves. The most common answer: I have nothing of importance to say.

This is why I've written a WOMEN'S guide to public speaking; both genders could use basic training, but there are different underlying issues. Quite frankly, men are more likley to think that what they have to say is interesting (sometimes to their detriment) and women, who are often great natural facilitators and promoters of discussion, can often think that driving or dominating a discussion is egomaniacal.

Panel programs like Hardball that feature predominantly men trying to dominate the conversation with their brilliance perpetuate this misperception. But I'm not suggesting that we all learn to wield sharp jabs in verbal combat. I'm talking about using our voices to help others, whether it be to describe your company or teach people to blog. If your goal is to help inform and enlighten, you needn't worry about sparring with others, or about relevance.

In the past I thought that public speaking needed to be a difficult endeavor if I was to be "good" at it; that subjects near and dear to me and so easy to talk about would never be interesting to others. But I suspended my disbelief just long enough to see that this is where there is most opportunity; the aspects of your knowledge that you take for granted can be your most valuable asset.

I've written a practical guide to public speaking the way I know best, from experience. There are some additional, absolutely fantastic guides you should also check out, including my favorites, on Guy Kawasaki's blog.

1. Focus less on blowing people's minds with your words and more on bringing your audience closer to what you are passionate about. I once presented to a women's group about blog strategies for their small businesses. Very early into the talk, I could see that the knowledge level on blogging was much lower than I'd anticipated. I asked my audience at the beginning how many were blogging, and when I saw no hands raised asked how many knew what a blog was. A smattering of hands went up.

Rather than plow through the cool marketing strategies I had outlined, I had to back up and, in effect, sell blogging rather than teach blogging strategy. I believe it worked. Many of the women followed up with me to share that they had taken steps to start a blog. This wasn't the mission I had started with, but it was still mission accomplished.

2. Be focused AND flexible. If you are just starting out, try to pitch yourself as specifically as possible; you want to be completely comfortable with the content and scope of your talk. But also understand that you will likely have to conform to some pre-determined discussion and still be relevant. If this is the case, address the topic you are being asked about, but from a place of knowledge and passion.

I will be speaking on a search engine marketing panel, which I wouldn't define as my forte, but I can speak to optimizing social media, and to how social media campaigns have effected search engine performance. This tangential knowledge will enhance the audience's overall perspective on the topic.

3. Don't seek to perform, seek to inform. Some of my "worst" performances received the most positive feedback. And that was because there was less performance, or concern about whether I was considered "good". Think less about how you are delivering to your audience and more about serving it. There's no point in finishing your talk without a glitch if no one absorbed or understood what you were saying.

As a course of action, I let the audience know what I will cover in my talk and when I will take questions (I usually opt to take them throughout, but will check with the program producer first). If you think taking questions during your talk will ruin your rhythm or cause you to forget key facts, then let your audience know you will answer questions at the end. Then make sure you leave enough time to do just that.

Perfection is not the goal here. Utility is. Nothing is more impressive than answering someone's question or making them realize something they didn't know before. It's great to make people laugh, but ultimately you want them to think and to understand.

4. Develop an affinity with your audience: Guy Kawasaki mentions this as well on his blog. In cases where I've had to arrive somewhere last-minute before speaking, I'm totally disconnected from my audience. I prefer to have enough time to sit down, have coffee with some attendees, find out why they are there, or have a conversation with some of the people I'll be presenting to while I set up.

Recently I had an opportunity to provide the closing keynote at a conference and opted to go to the event the day before. I spoke with attendees and heard them articulate their issues and what really interested them. By the time I spoke, the talk had practically written itself. I was able to emphasize the right parts and to address questions I was asked earlier. Before a recent panel I kvetched with one of my co-panelists about odd, even gross, experiences we'd encountered at meetings at our former companies. This had nothing to do with our panel discussion, but we all felt more than comfortable sitting on stage and interacting during our talk.

If arriving a day or a few hours before your engagement is not possible, at the very least squeeze in a conversation with your host, or the event producers, so that you are grounded a bit more with the tone of the event and with the crowd.

5. And if you don't get an opportunity to develop this affinty, just keep going. Last year I had an exciting opportunity to speak about BlogHer in Tel Aviv. Though everyone was extremely friendly and seemed to enjoy my presentation. I found it difficult participating on a follow-up panel where all the recipients except for myself and an American professor spoke Hebrew. I had to wear one of those translation headsets to understand what was being said and couldn't chime in until seconds after the fact. It's tough being witty or poignant in a dicussion you can't understand. So I waited patiently. I waited until I heard my name, which meant that I was being asked a question. And I apologized for the five second delay before being able to understand it, and I responded on-message.

I've also had to pitch or present to people whose only greeting to me was "I have five minutes", or who were on the way to their next appointment.

The point I'm trying to make is, until you are your topic's equivalent of Steve Jobs and people will flock to hear whatever comes out of your mouth, you must take your opportunities, stay on-message, and be super grateful for the opportunity, no matter what. A sense of humor in these situations is key. Take one second to gather yourself, even say, let me take a moment to remember my name, and then GO!

6. Practice self-acceptance: Wish you had on a better outfit, or that your hair didn't look so flat on the day that you have to present? Your audience doesn't, so defer to them on this one.

7. Know thyself: I know that I have a tough time memorizing facts, and I know that I'm good at telling stories. I take time days before the talk to go over my numbers, dates, and names--it takes several reviews before they become second nature, and I try to structure my talks in ways that enable stories, very short ones, wherever possible.

God forbid I still can't remember a fact in front of a whole slew of important people, and no one is up for story hour, what then? I tell them I don't remember that name, statistic, or source and ask if I may follow up with them later with that information, and then I do what I say I will. And I refrain from self-flagellating later. Guilt is so indulgent.

8. Don't pray for exposure, make it happen. A friend once asked me how I got on panels, and I told her that I have all the right connections and that it's always been about who I know--NOT! Sure, knowing people helps, but there's a much more effective method to getting speaking gigs: asking. And I don't mean sending a note into the conference-planning either and hoping that your name serendipitously brings up memories of the producer's best friend from high school. I mean PITCHING yourself.

I've seen a lot of panel pitches. Ones that I'm not compelled to show Elisa Camahort, who plans our events:

"Hi, I've gone to BlogHer before and I just really love what you do..." I love people who love BlogHer, and while love conquers many things, it does not seed a panel. We need credentials! We need to know why your topic is so important to our audience, and we need to know your hopefully unique perspective on it. If you don't see your topic as critical, you've lost the game, and you need to go back to the beginning of this post to read why what you know matters.

"I would love to be on a panel relating to (insert forty-thousand-foot-view on amorphous topic here, like parenting, women who work, people who love too much, etc.)" In effect you are saying, "please do the work for me and tell me where I fit in." Book publishers hate this approach and bong prospective authors with no real view of how their work should be positioned. Likewise, a conference programmer may disagree or want to alter your approach, but asking to be involved without indicating how you want to show up may take you out of consideration.

9. Slow down and hydrate. I'm a fast-talker, so this is a toughie for me. Often I've got a lot to say and want to plow through, and I tend toward excitedness. If you are like me, slow down your pace--people actually appreciate when you let them catch up. If you tend to have less energy when you are nervous, fake excitement, and remember, you are not doing your audience a disservice by not being yourself, you are helping them to absorb what you have to say. One of Guy Kawasaki's posts explains how vocal inflection plays a role in what your audience can hear and retain.

And yes, drink water, even break to take a sip, if you must. At that first BlogHer conference, I was running around madly, trying to supply people with Cat-5 cables and adjusting signage. I didn't take any time to prepare physically for my panel. By the time I got to introduce my panel, my throat was so dry I actually started squeaking. It didn't help that I'd popped a piece of gum in my mouth and almost choked on that. (One that we still chalk up on the "What was she thinking?" list of early speaking blunders). These things may seem small, but start talking for a significant amount of time with no water and you'll see/feel/hear what I mean. If you are offered water, take it. And if you aren't, ask for it!

10. Don't memorize, visualize. Years ago my sister asked me to speak at her wedding. I started scripting things to say, and then got frustrated with myself when I tried to recite what I'd written and couldn't remember it. A colleague of mine at the time, a former news anchor and prolific speaker, suggested that I outline what I wanted to say, and then spontaneously generate the words, working off of that outline. I've used this model for public speaking ever since.

For a presentation that might mean something like:

1. Introduction: Story about when April and I met.
2. Correlation with the company's purpose
3. What we are doing now to stick to that purpose
a. Product design
b. Company culture
c. Launch of newsletter

Pretend that you are giving your presentation to a real audience, and go through your outline in your head, spontaneously speaking to each point in your outline. Notice where you tend to digress or drag down the presentation. Notice where you can't elaborate and either need to build more details/description/storytelling, or drop that point.

If you are giving a presentation multiple times, you become a self-correcting machine. Though I've given the same presentation many times before, I've never delivered it the same way twice. Some phrases are repeated, as I've memorized them over time, but by using an outline I am able to move things around as necessary, address questions, and present authentically.

And if you have facts or lists of information you must share and aren't sure if you'll nail it, read it verbatim. This isn't a contest to see what you can recite, and forgetting information can be more damaging--or discrediting--than remembering it incorrectly. I do this when I present our sponsors at BlogHer. I'm not trying to be tacky; I'm trying to give everyone credit.

11. Know the difference between a soundbite and a script. This relates to the last point; while I don't suggest memorizing a speech, I do recommend reviewing your most salient point, product, argument, and deciding EXACTLY how you would like it worded. We call these crafted terms soundbites, and they aren't meant to be artificial marketingspeak but rather a clear, repeatable, press-quotable way to refer to your idea or business.

I've always been resistant to soundbites; I'm a writer for Chrissakes! Don't tell ME how to express what I can express more authentically and spontaneously myself! This attitude is unrealistic and will lead to others not being able to remember key aspects of your work or business. As Chip and Dan Heath say in their book Made to Stick (with some re-interpretation by me): Do you really need to infantilize your audience by repeating phrases over and over again like they are little children? Based on what we know about cognitive retention and brand recognition: Yes, you do.

Here's to seeing you up on the dais. Imperfect and powerful.

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause.

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