Public speaking. Apparently more people are afraid of it than dying. What is it about speaking in front of an audience that is so terrifying?
I was born with the gift of gab. Even though no one had to ask me to stand in front of a group and talk, I was the one with my elbows out pushing my way to the front, seeking the attention of the spotlight. Everyone else was too scared, so there was no shortage of opportunities to be the center of attention. Being the center of attention can be good and bad. Good because with practice, fear turns into excitement when you have the attention of a group of people. Bad because you start to fall in love with your own voice.
Your voice is an inner monologue that tells you to say something smart, funny or creative. It tells you to speak so people will pay attention to you. Interestingly enough, the most effective public speakers often speak as a way to compensate for deep insecurities. Frankly, I was one of those people. I thought that speaking made me important. The result was early in my career I spent a lot of time boring people with my ideas, and silencing collaboration in my quest to dominate the spotlight.
A mentor of mine pulled me aside after a meeting and said, “Dinesh, I know you’re smart. Stop bashing me over the head with it in every meeting.” I stunned into silence. It had never occurred to me that sharing my thoughts could mean I was walking over other people’s ideas and contributions. I thought I was contributing to get to the best idea with the added bonus of showing everyone how important I was.
After reflecting on that short interaction I realized that there was something wrong with my inner monologue. It was driving me to the speak up so that I could get external validation of my worth through the appreciative and complimentary feedback of my audience. The irony was the thing I was seeking wasn’t real. People don’t really appreciate and sincerely respect a person who spends all their time talking. People respect individuals who spend most of their time listening.
It was this paradox that made me start to silence my internal monologue and focus on listening. It helped me discover the most powerful tool of listening – the question. Look, I still spend a lot of time talking. It’s hard for a leopard to change his spots. The difference now is that I try to drive my presentations around the power of a question.
Here are 3 principles that I now follow when presenting or speaking to anyone, including investors, CEOs or my kids:
1. Make a Statement
Ideally a provocative one that will snap people’s attention to your topic, then ask a question that every member of the audience can answer silently to themselves. My hook for this blog post is a perfect example. Did it hook you in? Did you relive the terror of your first public speech? This technique instantly gets you out of your head and into the head of your audience which primes you for better listening.
2. Leave Lots of Space For Silence
It’s a paradox but the most powerful presentations of ideas require silence to ensure that the audience’s brains can absorb what you are saying. As a society we’re very uncomfortable with silence. You have probably found yourself rushing in to fill the void of a question or conversation. I figure out people’s tolerance for silence by taking a moment to respond to before responding to a question. The most confident people will wait as much as minutes to wait for my answer. Other folks will fill in the void with explanations, or clarifications. Silence is a forgotten tool of communication. When you speak to anyone give them moments of silence in between your ideas to process and synthesize. It will also give you an opportunity to quiet to your own internal monologue and refocus yourself on your audience.
3. Speak Simply
Our education system has rewarded us for big words, and complex ideas. Speaking simply is something that’s really difficult. If your idea is complex take the time to make it simple. Use small words. In the past I’ve tested the complexity of my presentations by giving them to my 10-year-old daughter. A 10-year-old is sophisticated enough to understand most topics but doesn’t have the vocabulary or ego we get as we become successful. As a result, 10-year-olds have problem asking “what does that mean?” As a speaker this forces you to speak simply, even when dealing with complex topics like financial instruments, marketing analytics, and software development life cycles. Speaking simply takes the focus off of you and your ideas, and puts it on your audience and their comprehension. Developing the ability to simplify complex ideas without losing meaning and your presentations will be effective, actionable, and memorable.
Your internal monologue isn’t going away. Even after 20+ years of speaking I still find myself rushing to get validation from my audience. Let’s face it, everyone is looking to be respected and appreciated. Just recognize what’s important to your internal monologue isn’t important to your audience. Focus on them and send your internal voice to go get pizza.
About the Author
This article was written by Dinesh Kandanchatha, a founder, mentor, speaker, and entrepreneur. Dinesh has grown, led, and exited 13 companies, scaled revenues to 8 figures, and sold a company for over $200 million.