The Public Speaker’s Secret Weapon

Eyes Behind Red Curtains On Wood StageAlthough I’m pretty comfortable speaking in front of a crowd now, I wasn’t born that way. In fact, I remember being absolutely terrified for at least the first few dozen presentations I gave. I managed to get the terror under control but it took many years before I discovered the secret weapon that has completely turned around my experience speaking in public.

You’re probably familiar with the problem of confirmation bias – the human tendency to look for, recognize and remember information that confirms our preexisting beliefs and theories. As info pros, we have to be on guard against confirmation bias; it can blind us to relevant information that could challenge the entire premise of our research.

But for public speakers, keeping this human default setting in mind can be very reassuring. Remember, people chose to come to your presentation, join your webinar or attend the meeting you are leading. That means they all have a vested interest in confirming to themselves that they made a good decision to spend their time listening to you. They’re not secretly counting up your grammatical mistakes, judging your choice in footwear, or wondering why your hair looks like that. Rather, they are looking for evidence that they made a good choice.

Once I realized this, I developed a quick little ritual that I now practice before every presentation I give or meeting I lead. I find a quiet space (and yes, it might just be a bathroom stall), close my eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. I imagine the room filling up with people, each of whom is – subconsciously at least – rooting for me. I conjure up a feeling of gratitude that every person in the audience is on my side; they are confident that I’ll do a fine job and they know they will be glad they chose to spend time with me. I smile, even if I have to force myself, and take one more deep breath, inhaling gratitude and exhaling a calm confidence that I will show up at my very best.

Yes, it sounds woo-woo, but this technique has changed my experience of public speaking. The people who have joined me for this event are my allies, not something to be feared. They’re more than willing to forgive me when I suddenly lose my train of thought, as long as I get myself back on track and keep going. They won’t focus on whether or not I have a particular degree or so many years of experience; they just want to come away knowing more than they did before.

I still feel that adrenaline rush as I’m being introduced and I walk to the podium, but it’s not immobilizing. I recognize it as a tool to help me think on my feet, and I look at it as confirmation that I’ll give a great presentation.

Try this approach and see how it works for you. Public speaking may never feel completely natural, but you can hone your skills in managing and channeling your initial anxiety.

Killing the Task Monsters

I’m a great list-maker. I have to-do lists everywhere; they have been compiled carefully, organized strategically, color coded and tagged. But when it comes to actually getting all those listed things done, it’s another matter. Some I can get done right away, and virtuously check that item as DONE. Others I look at, think “ugh, that’s going to take time”, and skip over, day after day. Pretty soon, they become big ugly Task Monsters, glaring at me reproachfully, daring me to take them on.

I finally realized I could slay the Task Monsters the same way you eat an elephant… a bite at a time. I have gone from to-do lists to to-do index cards, and that has transformed how I approach projects both large and small. Whether it’s managing a complex client project, re-imagining a web site, developing a new marketing plan or scoping out a home renovation job, everything has its own pile of cards.

The magic is that I sort the cards based on how long I think the task will take. There are 15-minute cards for items like “Reach out to Anne to schedule informational interview” and “Email graphic designer re: logo”. There are half-hour cards for “Scope out options for new fridge” and “Sketch out upcoming webinar on big data”. For the tasks that I know will take more attention, I have 2- to 4-hour cards for jobs like “Write proposal for speaking opportunity at 2018 SLA conference” and “Outline new web page flow”.

Sure, it takes some time to chunk out all my projects into index-card-sized jobs, but I consider this time well spent. Now, when I have 20 minutes to spare before my next appointment, or a meeting was unexpectedly postponed and I have two unscheduled hours, I go through my cards to see what I feel like tackling.

The magic of these cards is that they’re so easy to pick up when you find yourself at the end of one task and not sure what to do next. While it might feel daunting to open up a folder labeled “New Marketing Plan”, it doesn’t take much to flip through some cards and choose one small item to take care of. Before you know it, you’ve made a significant dent in that daunting project. Take that, Task Monster!

ADDED: Joann Wleklinski suggested color-coding the cards – using a different color for each time category. Brilliant!