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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Doha, Qatar.

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I am writing this from the airport in Doha, one of the most global airports in the world.

When I say “global”, I mean one of the airports where you will find some of the most diverse group of people from different cultures, countries and backgrounds.  (New York, Singapore, Istanbul, London and Dubai airports are other similar places.)

When I look up from my computer, I see:

– a group of drunk Swedish teenagers
– a lonely African man
– an Indian woman in a gorgeous Sari
– a group of Bangladeshi men
– a Chinese couple checking out the designer bag the woman apparently just bought.

I also hear two women speaking Russian, a Filipino flight attendant for Qatar Airways speaking Tagalog to a passenger and, of course, a lot of people speaking Arabic.

And so on, and so on.

Airports like the one in Doha are like “banzai trees of the world”. A miniature earth.

Some people get stressed in an environment like this.

I LOVE it.

Seeing, so close, the diversity of mankind gives me energy and joy.

Sitting here reminds me of the importance for a global speaker to craft a speech that is “universal”.

Many times, I get asked: “You who are such an international speaker — do you change your speech a lot when you travel to different parts of the world?”

The truth is that I do not.

And the reason I don’t is that many of my audiences are global since I often speak at global conferences.

If a global conference is happening in, say, Bangkok, I should not do a speech for “Thai people” since the audience at a global conference will have flown in from all over the world. And my speech should therefore work equally well for the American, the Chinese, the German – and yes, the Thai person – in the room.

So what does that mean??

It means that your standard speech should work “at home” and “abroad”. Of course, I am of the opinion that as a speaker, you should not even think in terms of “at home” and “abroad”. But that is a theme for a different post.

You should not have one “standard speech”, and then another speech where you change things according to where in the world you are speaking. Your standard speech should already be constructed so that it works for people regardless which country or culture they come from.

But that is impossible, you say.

No it is not, I say.

Yes, the people here in Doha airport are very, very different. But at the same time, they are very, very similar. As anyone who travels a lot knows, as different as we humans might seem, we actually have much more in common with each other than we have differences.

Use the insight that everyone in the audience is a human being – and craft your speech not for Germans, Americans, or Chinese – but for humans.

That will give you a speech that is not only universally accepted, it will also make your speech connect better with your audience since you are now connecting with them on a deeper, human level.

Just like the color of our skin is only, well, skin deep, so is our cultural connections and cultural differences just a thin layer compared to the deep, fundamental fabric that makes us humans.

Play on those deeper, human strings.

Use the universal themes of happiness, sadness, hope and fear, etc. It will make you a better speaker, a better story teller – and (I know this sounds  grand, but I mean it) – a better person.

Remember: People are more similar than they seem.

When I went to North Korea, I asked the western guide who was with us (and who had been going to North Korea for many years), “What is the biggest insight you have gained from going here?”

He said: “That they (the North Koreans) are just like us. 20% are assholes, but the vast majority of around 80% are nice, decent people who want the best for themselves, their families, their community, and the world.”

The problem with North Korea of course is that the 20% is in charge. I totally understood what the guide was trying to tell me, and I agree with him.

Again: we might be different, but we are much more similar than we think.

Lesson: When writing a keynote speech that you plan to give multiple times, ask yourself this question — “Would this speech work if I gave it to an audience consisting of the people at the airport in Doha?” 🙂

P.S.

The funny thing is, writing a “human speech” will make it better even if the audience consists of, say 90% Germans (or Americans or Chinese, etc.) and 10% “foreigners”. Great speeches, like great literature, music or art, connect with us regardless of  what background we have.

 

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