For many leaders, public speaking does not come easy. Feeling some nervousness before giving a speech is natural and even beneficial, but too much nervousness can be detrimental. How can a person increase their ability to be an effective public speaker? The number one attribute of effective public speaking, which has supported me throughout my career, was taught to me by my father.
As a college student, one of the requirements of my freshman communications class was to do a presentation in front of the class. I did not think much of this assignment at the time it was given. As the day to give my presentation approached, I was comfortable that I would do a good job. Sitting in class the morning of, watching a classmate give her presentation, I felt ready to go. Then the time came. It was my turn, and I was in the hot seat… As I walked to the front of the class I could feel my throat getting dry and my hands getting sweaty. Needless to say, my presentation was horrible.
Walking back to the dormitory after class, a number of things ran through my mind.In high school I had been the number one trumpet player in my community. I had played Cincinnati Music Hall in front of thousands of people and never missed a beat. I had led our band and orchestra to number one ratings for several years. My record in solo competition was unblemished. Getting nervous in front of crowds was not something that happened to me. As a matter of fact, I rather enjoyed the rush of being in front of the crowd. There is a level of stimulation that comes from performing before a group of people that is hard to replicate.
When I got back to my room I called my Dad. He was a senior executive at Leo Burnett Advertising in Chicago. He was very much the face of that organization to many of their clients. I knew that he “performed” in front of clients regularly. I thought he could provide me with some insight about what went wrong this morning. I left a message with his secretary and he called me back later in the day. I walked him through what had happened in class that morning. I told my Dad that I had called him because I knew he was in pressure situations in front of clients all the time, and I was certain he never got nervous.
Dad asked me how prepared I was to give the presentation. I told him that I felt ‘pretty good’ about the material. He said, “When was the last time you went out on stage with your trumpet feeling “pretty good” about the music?” He was right, I never felt pretty good about the music. As a matter of fact, I rarely had music with me. When I went out on stage I knew the music cold. I didn’t have to think about the music. I only thought about how the music was going to make my audience “feel”.
He said that when he addressed a client, like when I addressed an audience, it was all about certainty. He was certain that he knew more about the topic than his client, and that he was comforted by his preparation. He told me to do a better job preparing for future course work.He said preparation was the key to gaining comfort in the classroom environment and when presenting, you should be certain that you are more prepared than your audience.
I have taken his words to heart. To this day I still enjoy the stage. Although I have not played the horn in quite some time, I do have many opportunities to perform. The stage is different now; sometimes training colleagues, sometimes coaching kids, sometimes addressing groups on the value of mentoring our youth. When I walk on stage my Dad’s words are with me. Be certain.