ALMOST every job demands public speaking. Here are some tips to improve.
My Public Speaking Horror Story:
I delivered speeches all over the Metro Detroit area for advisors hoping to wow potential new clients. You probably know about–and may have been invited to–these seminars. An advisor offers a free dinner, hires me, and my job is to make the advisor seem brilliant enough that she scores a few clients. I was a great rainmaker. At the end of my presentations over 80% of the people in the room (on average) requested a consultation with an advisor.
One night an advisor held a seminar at a restaurant with a banquet room in the basement. It turned out that on weekends this same room was used as a comedy club. To celebrate the cool surroundings, and feeling pretty full of myself, I decided to lead the seminar with a joke.
Rule #1: Jokes are dangerous
Generally, while it’s good to let your personality shine on stage, telling a set-piece joke isn’t the world’s best idea. Most people in the room will see it for what it is….a disarming device. Because people are smart, they’ll fold their arms and clam up even more. I wish I could remember the joke I decided to tell. It had nothing to do with financial planning or the event. I remember that involved a dog and pirates.
I also remember that nobody laughed.
Unless it’s the point of your seminar and you know exactly how the punchline intertwines with your overall message, don’t tell jokes when public speaking.
The lack of laughter should have stopped me, but it didn’t. I thought I could “win them back.” The crowd and servers were helping my cause. Even though the advisor wasn’t providing alcohol, they allowed patrons to buy their own, and some people in the back of the room were emptying their wallets for the bartender. By the end of the seminar, they’d already thrown out a couple of half-drunk questions, and I’d confidently swatted them away.
Rule #2: Don’t speak off-the-cuff
This also is a problem. While I was successful at knocking down the questions, the fact that I did so only increased my arrogance that I could talk off-the-cuff. If you’re speaking in public, stick to prepared remarks. Anything you’ve practiced in front of others who are experienced speakers will lower the chance that you’ll wind up embarrassing yourself. Think about the news: nearly every time a speaker gets into trouble, it’s when they “wing it.”
So, here I am, emboldened, and about to make an ass out of myself.
The drunk woman in the back asked, “Why should you get a will? Here’s what I did: I just put my kids’ names on all of my stuff and that takes care of everything. No probate court or anything.”
I felt like a major leaguer playing against an amateur. Answering this one was going to be child’s play.
Here was my answer:
“That will work, but here’s the problem…and by the way, these are the kinds of things that pros think about that rarely happen, but they’re also the reason you do it the right way instead of taking shortcuts.
Let’s say you split everything with your daughter and she is a new driver. She slides on some ice and broadsides a school bus full of kids with parents that have good lawyers. Half of your stuff is subject to that lawsuit.”
I was killin’ it, wasn’t I? Oh, yeah! If you had been there, you’d know just how brilliant I was. It was a flippin’ work of art. Those people in the room were lucky that night: they were witnessing a master.
“Or worse, your daughter might be a great girl, but you never know how kids will turn out, do you? Your daughter comes home one day with someone she shouldn’t and announces that she’s getting married to….I don’t know….to a biker.”
I wanted to stuff it back in the moment I said it.
Sitting right in front of me, literally front row center, and they’d been there for the whole first hour of the speech, was a group of people in leather chaps with motorcycle helmets.
And it Gets Worse
Not only did it turn out that I’d picked on bikers, but I picked on bikers who marched on the state capital each year to fight for biker’s rights and to help overcome stereotypes that bikers were some low-life group of people.
The second I finished the woman approached me. “It’s people like you who we fight against every day. You’re an idiot.”
Yes, I was.
Did I mean the comment about the biker? Actually, I couldn’t think of anything so just blurted out the first thing that came to mind. Maybe I’d thought of it because they were SITTING RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!
So the moral, Stackers: Don’t speak off the cuff. Don’t tell jokes. Prep your material carefully. Take audience questions at your peril, and if you do, stick with answers that you’ve given successfully in prior speeches or practiced with your speaking trainers and friends.