Let me be frank: I have mixed feelings about getting up in public to speak before large groups. This should come as no surprise since the fear of public speaking tops almost everyone’s list—surpassing death itself! As Jerry Seinfeld puts it, “If you were invited to give a eulogy at a funeral, you’d rather be the guy in the casket than the one at the podium!”
But what may come as a surprise is that for almost 30 years I have made a handsome living from coaching others to speak in public—before large groups and small; before juries deliberating complex issues; in Congress; at shareholders meetings; and with clients giving keynote speeches.
My career has surprised me: I never imagined I’d have landed in the Boardrooms of corporate America, nor the courtrooms where major cases were being hashed out, nor in limousines coaching CEO’s en route to a flight, nor in airplanes, posh hotels, and on expense accounts. The work was demanding and exhilarating. The high fees I’ve commanded, the accolades, the prestige, and the perks made my work fun and gratifying. So why, then, would I rather avoid doing the very thing I coach others in?
I am reminded here of a line from Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall: “Those who can do, do; those who can’t do, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym!”
For years, I preferred to help others hone their message, find their passion, and convey their joy (or at least, their information). But now, it has all come home to roost, for I am on a different path, having completed a book on the subject, called, “More Than Words Can Say: The Making of Inspired Speakers.” It is now my turn to do the lecture circuit, market my book, speak before groups, and sell, sell, sell!
For years, I dreaded the thought. I avoided it and even vowed that I’d never write a book. I kept that pledge for well over 20 years, happy to be running seminars, coaching brilliant clients to open their hearts & minds, proud as a mother hen when her children succeeded, and content to remain behind the scenes.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I never went before an audience. I had my fair share of presentations, keynote speeches of my own, and informal talks. But the thought of appearing before a huge audience, one I did not know, and speaking about my book, made me feel like a used-car salesman in a tacky, plaid suit, hawking his wares.
So, I had to coach myself. And my coaching always starts with awareness—self-awareness (the hardest kind to come by). But there I met resistance. Resistance is the dance partner of awareness. They waltz around, sometimes one leading, sometimes the other. And when resistance had stepped on the toes of awareness once too many times, awareness finally waltzed off alone.
Dancing solo is most liberating. No one else pushing you where you don’t wish to go.
No one else’s agenda is besting your own. When my own awareness found its voice, I realized that speaking with others holds no fear for me. One-on-one is my medium. Total strangers are constantly confiding in me. New acquaintances appear to be old friends. Old friends share deep parts of themselves that they share with very few others.
Small groups hold no fright either. I have been running seminars for almost 30 years. I have been in classrooms with 6 – 200. My seminars get consistently rave reviews and in some firms have had waiting lists of two years. So, you might ask, what’s your problem? Why do you resist larger audiences? After all, you know what it takes to charm, seduce, embrace, inform, and inspire? You’ve seen clients transform from boring to sparkling all the time. You’ve been there, yourself! What’s up?
Here’s the deal (and I think this applies to most people): Speaking to one or to a small group is real. You see them; they see you. You can tell if they’re listening, if they’re alive, awake, with you, against you, daydreaming, etc. You can read their body language. You can meet their eyes. You are real. You’re talking—not performing.
But when the room gets large, when the lights go down, when you are in a spotlight that says “perform,” the real you gets as shy as a nervous kitten. You loose your self-confidence. You imagine all manner of horrors. You are certain they’ll see through you and not be taken in by your façade. And you’d be right!
As long as the real you is hiding behind a façade, you cannot feel at home at the podium. You must strip: not your clothes, but your mask. You may assume that your mask is protecting you, but in reality, it is obscuring your light. And your light is what must shine for others to be engaged when you speak. You must reveal yourself, share your private thoughts, expose your vulnerabilities, be honest with yourself and, thus, with your audience.
The greatest awareness I gained about myself is that I am not a performer: I am, though, a very good communicator. The difference is where I am shining the spotlight of my mind. When it is directed at me, I am ripe for self-consciousness; when it is directed at another, I am open to real communion. I stop asking “how am I doing,” and move to, “Are you with me.” I stop worrying about, “Will they like me,” and start considering, “What can I offer them.”
I now know from testing the waters with individual readers and with small groups, that the book I’ve written is transformational. It is meant to take your fear of public speaking and turn it into your forte. It is aimed at all speakers—in any setting—for whom authenticity and connection are paramount. Readers tell me it has changed forever the way they look at getting up in public. It has changed the way they speak to their spouses … the way they speak to their children. It has, indeed, changed their relationship with themselves.
I could not be more pleased. And I am glad to say that although I may still feel butterflies at the prospect of standing before a large group, I have taught those butterflies to fly in formation. I also figure that if Pavarotti was always nervous before every performance, I can be too.
The difference now is that I do not see it as a performance; I see my role as a sharer. I am in the spotlight to share my passion, my insights, and my pleasure. And when I share, I am engaged in an interchange . . . I am not there all alone. My listeners are up there with me; they just happen to be a few feet away. And I’ve learned to make friends with the spotlight. The spotlight is there to illuminate me until my own light can shine on its own.
© 2009 – 2015, Saskia Shakin. All rights reserved.