A Common Conundrum
Most of us emerge from our mother’s womb with plenty to say and no worries about who hears it. Why then, with decades of experience, insight and knowledge behind us, do we quiver with self-doubt on invitation to speak?
One of my recent clients, a practitioner of the law, just turned 70. He deliberately hid in the shadows of research rather than the bar, because he feared his spoken words were just not good enough. His written words however were brilliant and he was happily successful behind the scenes of Australian law.
When he came to see me, it was because he’d decided to step out and take a big risk. He wanted, needed, to speak at his son’s wedding. What he couldn’t do for himself and his career all those years, he was ready to do for his son.
I could see it was difficult for him, turning up week after week to see me. He persisted, determined to slip from the grip that held him. He wanted to respond differently whenever he was asked to speak and he was asked to speak often. He wanted to not panic, “But what should I talk about?” He wanted to just say, “Yes”.
I’ll return to his story at the end; first it’s important to explore a bit of subtext. The question, “What should I talk about?” is a common conundrum.
Why Was I Asked To Speak?
It’s generally a compliment when someone asks you to speak at an event, meeting or gathering. It’s weird but true that others believe in us, before we believe in ourselves. Of course another reason could be purely pragmatic. They were desperate and needed a speaker! Seriously though, no one will invite you to speak if they genuinely think you might stuff it up.
What Should I Talk About?
Being asked to speak, can feel like an entire set of very heavy encyclopaedias are sitting on your shoulders. Who are you to sift and sieve the entire knowledge of the world? And then absorb and mush it about a bit to regurgitate exactly the right bits of relevant, witty insights just perfect for your audience? Their eager faces, upturned like expectant flowers, ready to receive your wisdom, your thoughts, you.
Therein lies the problem. And you have created it. By turning it into an amorphous one-way talkfest of frightening proportion.
The Reframe: What Do Your Listeners Need To Know?
Firstly, start with the Old Switcheroo, also known as The Reframe. Ask the Organiser, Who will be there and What do they care about? What should I talk about? Why were you specifically asked? Research what you share in common with group members. It could include things like: desire for change or a love of words.
Secondly, decide on the purpose of your Talk. This will anchor your thoughts into a logical flow and pull, not push, your listeners along with you. Decide:
- Do you want them to learn a specific skill? (“At the end of this talk you’ll be able to…”)
- Do you want to build awareness of an important issue? (“My purpose today is to help you understand the importance of and take action on…”)
- Do you want to entertain them? (“I’m going to share my adventures of the world’s most dangerous places. Although I must say your carpark out the back is one of the scariest places I’ve ever been to!”)
Thirdly, speak about a subject that begins with a personal story. It will be easy to tell and remember because you were there; it’s the story of your own experience. An experience you thoughtfully chose because you know the group will relate to it. Self-consciousness drops away when you allow yourself to get lost in the story. You tap into something much bigger than yourself and it becomes a bridge, connecting you to the whole group. This is where rapport and trust begin.
Fourthly, respectfully choose topics that will not offend but extend your listeners. Ask yourself, What would keep me in my seat as a member of this group? Where does my passion lurk within this topic? What universal truth can I tap into to reach people’s hearts and minds? Listeners want to grow as human beings and like you, want to be seen, heard and attended to. Offer them that and you will be scintillating, whether your topic is Secrets of Cabbage Success or How I Conquered The World With Just One Leg or How To Increase Ticket Sales And Increase Profit.
“I’ve Been Asked To Speak… What Should I Talk About?”
The answer to this question lies in it’s reframing, research, purpose and your passion. The privilege of speaking to a group, whether it’s a Workshop, Team Meeting or your son’s wedding, is about honouring the occasion and the human beings in front of you. Temporarily you have been gifted the Mantle of Leadership. Transfer your focus from you to them. Attend to their needs and you will earn their attention and perhaps their hearts, minds and wallets!
I’ll return now to my original client story and end with his insight gleaned from 6 weeks of being willing to show up and feel very uncomfortable, to achieve something for which he yearned:
He said: “I’ve come to realise that public speaking isn’t about performance. It’s about sharing. And I can do that.”
And he did!