How to become better as a speaker

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Today I had a revelation.

It happened as I was doing the Q&A after a speech I delivered at the Rotary Club of Singapore.

I had been invited to speak about the job of being a speaker and I it such an interesting topic that I gladly accepted their invitation. So for once, I did not talk about a topic that interests me. Instead, the topic was about myself. It was a bit weird – but fun – to give a talk about being a speaker.

Anyway, in the Q&A session after my speech, one of the many questions that I received was: “How do you decide which stories to tell?”

I replied: “The great thing with being a global keynote speaker is that people come up to you after your speech to share their stories and their favourite examples around the topic you just have been speaking on.”

I explained that the a great perk of my job is that just by being a speaker, you get access to so many interesting stories — stories that are often not well known.

The person who asked me the question had a follow-up question that really got me thinking. He said: “So your job is to filter out which stories to re-tell?”

Bang!

That’s when the revelation hit me. Or perhaps, I should say it in its plural form — “revelations”.

Revelation Number 1:

Our job as speakers is not to collect stories to tell, but to select among the stories we have heard that which are good enough to be included in our speech.

This means that we need to gather more stories than we are planning to tell.

I do not have an exact number, but I would guess that it should be something like “100/10/1”.

If we collect 100 stories, then 10 are good enough to be included in a speech, which means they are good enough to be written down and saved. And out of those 10 stories, we actually include 1 in our speeches.

So in essence, our job is not to “collect stories” but to “discard stories” until we have just a few great ones left. Those great stories are the ones we tell our audience.

Which brings us to Revelation Number 2:

As speakers, we are actually not “storytellers”. We are “story re-tellers”.

We do not just tell stories, but we re-tell stories that other people have come to share with us either by approaching us after a speech, agreeing to do an interview with us for our research, or by contacting us online, and so on.

Of course, this does not apply to the category of speakers whose speeches are built around their own life story like “climbing Mount Everest”, or “living without arms”, or “sharing my experiences as a Fortune 500 CEO”, etc.

For the rest of us who speak on a general topic, I would say that nothing beats the stories that you receive from audience members after you have given your speech.

 

Knockout Reasons Why Audience’s Stories Are Topnotch:

1) They are very genuine stories

Stories shared by people from the audience are close to their hearts because it is something about them or a close friend of theirs.

2) They are powerful 

When a person decides to approach you after your speech, it’s because they really want to share the wisdom of the story to more people.

3) They are often unknown

Most likely, an audience member who shares a story with you is not a celebrity who has exposure in mainstream media or the internet. Thus, their story which you will tell (or more aptly, “re-tell”) will sound fresh when you share them on stage.

4) They are relevant

Since the person telling the story just heard your main message, my experience is that the stories you get right after a speech very often compliment the message that you have been trying to get across.

5) They make you think

Because the story is shared with you by a person who just heard you speak, you get a fresh perspective of your message that is from the point of view of another person. It usually helps to see your own topic with new eyes.

And that is just what happened today.

The man in the audience who asked me about “re-telling” stories helped me look at my own process of collecting, selecting and picking stories to tell in a new way.

So today’s post is very meta: I am writing a post about the value of collecting stories to re-tell from the audience, by telling you how I got to look at the process of re-telling stories by listening to a man in the audience who just heard me speak today. 😉

Lesson: Do not think that your job is just to “tell stories”. Instead, your job is to “re-tell” the stories that you come across as a speaker.

A bonus effect of thinking like this is that the speech becomes less about “you and your ideas” and more about “you as a person who is interested in the topic you are speaking on.”

Or to think in a metaphor, you are less of the “source of the river” and more of “the watering hole” where people who like your subject “go to drink”. I hope you understand what I mean. Less “YOU”. More “US”.

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Singapore.

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One of the most common questions I get when people hear that I have been a professional speaker for 20+ years is:

“Don’t you get nervous?!”

When they hear me reply: “I try to…“, they usually look so confused that I have to explain what I mean.

Since this is a blog on speaking, I am assuming that the question of nervousness is high up on the list of topics that the readers of this blog want me to cover.

So let me explain.

You see, I believe that a great speaker should be a little bit nervous.

To be nervous means to have a “feeling or reaction resulting from anxiety or anticipation.”

True, the nervousness that comes from anxiety is perhaps not the best of feelings.

But the nervousness that anticipation creates is great. It creates energy, tension, a touch of danger or vulnerability. A feeling that something is at stake.

Very experienced speakers risk loosing this tension and go up on stage and just go through the motions, fall back on auto-pilot and get the speech over and done with.

God, how boring to listen to!

Give me a nervous speaker over that any day.

A tightrope walker who is not feeling any nervousness at all when stepping up on the rope is probably walking 2 feet over the ground. That is not a very thrilling tightrope walk to watch.

And the same is true for a speech: a speaker who feels nothing when he or she goes up on stage will probably not be very interesting to listen to. Or at least, it would be more interesting to listen to if the audience felt a bit of tension in the air.

As a speaker who has done around 2000 speeches over the last 20+ years, I understand that I am at risk of falling into the trap of delivering bland speeches without a slight degree of nervousness, just because of the fact that I have done it so many times.

It’s just like the risk of missing a dangerous spot if you drive on a road you have driven 100s of times before, because you relax too much thinking that you know what is going to happen as you drive through that familiar road.

Since just walking up on a stage doesn’t make me nervous anymore, I artificially try to make myself more nervous.

Here are some helpful techniques that I use to increase nervousness:

1. I (almost every time I speak) move, or remove, one or two slides just minutes before I go on stage to make myself a bit uncertain in which order the slides are going to come.

2. I have been known to walk around backstage to create the feeling of nervousness in myself.

3. I can envision that I am totally going to bomb as a speaker while I am waiting to go up the stage, and then I think of some of the best speeches that I have ever done to counter balance the negative thoughts that come into my head. 😉

I am not saying that you should copy my techniques, especially not if you are a new speaker who feels nervous just thinking about having to deliver your speech.

The funny thing is that suddenly, once in a while – even after 20 years of doing this – I too feel nervous before going up on stage without having to do anything to create that feeling.

Regardless of what we do to try to make ourselves a little bit anxious about how the delivery of our message will be received, just know that feeling anxious or nervous is a good one. Embrace that feeling.

I once listened to a speech writer for Bill Clinton who revealed that one US President (I do not remember who it was anymore) reportedly drank too much water before delivering an important speech to make himself conscious about peeing himself (!) to create that feeling of tension in the air that comes from the right kind of nervousness.

Lesson: Do not worry if you feel a little bit nervous when you are about to go up and give an important speech. Start to worry when you never feel nervous before a speech.

P.S.

Even if you are overwhelmed by a lot of nervousness, know that an audience will almost always try to mentally help you overcome it. Just look at this video where Swedish poet Bob Hansson steps up on stage and admits that he is nervous.

(Quote: “I am always nervous, but now I have to be nervous in English” — Fantastic!)

And notice how the audience reacts and embraces him, and the speech turns out great!

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Singapore.

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An easy way to become a good speaker  is to ask conference organisers what they hate about speakers – and then avoid doing that.

One thing that they do not like is speakers who “fly in for the speech”, as in those who show up at the conference just before their speech is about to begin, or who are at the conference on time, but do not attend the sessions.

It might sound obvious but you will be surprised how many speakers do not listen to the sessions before their own speech.

There might be many reasons for why they are not doing that.

For example:

– They are nervous so they can not make themselves sit in the room just before they are to go up and speak;

– They need some time off to focus before they go up on stage;

– The are just not interested in what the other speakers are talking about;

– They have other, they think, more important things to do.

Personally, I try to make an effort to attend as much of a conference as I can, and I do not sit in front of the room on the VIP seats. I sit at the back of the room so that I more easily can get a feel for the audience.

I do this for three reasons:

1) When you sit and listen to another speaker address the same group you are soon going to speak to, you get insights on how the group behaves. Do they seem to like jokes? Are they a tough crowd? etc.

2) You learn a lot of interesting things. There are only a few places which are better than conferences if you want to keep up with the latest trends. So, why not use this opportunity to learn?

3) THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON: By listening to the previous speakers, you can play on what the audience has already heard.  It makes the audience connect with you because they feel you are “on the same page”. It also stops you from making a fool of yourself by, for example, using the same example as a previous speaker, or contradicting a previous speaker without knowing that you are.

So let me give you an example of how this worked out for me today.

I was invited by Straits Times (the largest newspaper in Singapore) to be on a panel at a conference they had organised for foreign journalists. The theme of the conference was “Foreign Workers in Singapore”, and I had been selected as one of the “foreign professionals” who had chosen Singapore as their new home.

I was to speak at 3 p.m. but the program already started at 9:30 a.m. The first part of the program was about migrant workers and the group even went and visited a dorm where 8600 (!) foreign workers from India and Bangladesh live.

I took the opportunity to join the whole program to learn about parts of Singapore that you normally never get to know so much about. (The picture above is from one of the rooms in this huge dorm that we visited.)

I got to know things like how:

  • Male foreign workers get to pay much more to go and work in Singapore than females  do. They  pay up to 10 000 dollars just to get into the country and start working. This means that they work, on average, 17 months just to pay off the debt they incurred to get into Singapore.

 

  • Only about 20% of the foreign workers from Bangladesh come home financially better off than when they left their home country.

 

  • About 40% of all domestic helpers in Singapore do not even get one day off per week even though there is now a law in Singapore stating that they have this right.

Sad statistics in so many ways.

And that information was very important for me to hear as we were later going to discuss why highly paid experts like me decided to move to Singapore.

Because I had heard the earlier discussions about the situation of these hard working, low paying workers, I could, in my panel presentation, make a connection between this problem and the challenges Singapore faces in terms of income differences. (Something that was, for sure, in the minds of the journalists in the room at that time.)

By spending the whole day at this conference (while only speaking for a few minutes at the very end), it not only made me feel better prepared for my speech, it also gave me so much valuable insights about Singapore, and knowledge and insights that would have been very difficult for me to get had I not gone to this conference.

It’s a huge privilege to be invited to speak at conferences.

But do not let this privilege stop you from enjoying the BIG OPPORTUNITY that comes with it: listening to the other speakers.

Do that. You will learn more. And you will also become a better speaker.

Lesson: Professional speakers get paid a lot of money to speak for one hour. But that fee is not just for the hour you speak. It is for the preparations, the travel, AND for you to get last minute updates about the audience by spending time with them before  your speech.

P.S.

So how about after the speech? I try to hang around until the next break so that the audience can come up and ask questions or give feedback. It’s a nice thing to do — and a great way to get business cards for follow up business! But staying after the speech is, in my opinion, not nearly as important as being there before your speech.

 

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