To someone who is trying to accomplish a goal, hearing the words, “Have patience” can be the most annoying sentence ever muttered.
As someone who has struggled with running straight for the finish line without looking around along the way, I can say patience and I are not natural friends.
We’re not enemies, but I wouldn’t say we are the type that see each other across the room at a party and all of a sudden the world stands still. We might, like, have an awkward conversation about the weather at the punch bowl about 3 hours in.
However, one thing I have learned about discovering my style as a public speaker is that patience is my only choice.
It’s not something that can be rushed, much like risotto, or a good soup. You need to give it time to come together. Because time is the only thing that builds depth of flavor.
One question I’m often asked is, “How will I know who I want to be on stage? Is it a feeling? Will the skies open up and shine the most brilliant white light on me?”
Okay, I may have added that last question, but in essence, this is what their questions are getting at. They want to know if it will be obvious when they find their speaking voice. They want to know what it feel like for them.
I wish I could say I had an epiphany one day that told me I was on the right track. I wish I could tell you I got on stage and all of a sudden something changed and I’ve never looked back.
Except, it wasn’t like that. I’ve found public speaking to be such a profound journey that has been highly personal and much deeper than I could have ever imagined. I thought I was going to learn how to tell a story and how to be more confident speaking in front of groups, but what I ended up learning was more about me and how I feel most comfortable in the world, and how I like interacting with others, and the types of topics I most like to discuss, and the environments where I feel most comfortable.
I didn’t learn these things overnight. It took me years and hundreds of speeches to start to pay attention to the tiny signs that said what I was doing was actually working. Or not working. Either way, the lessons were there if I was willing to pay attention to them.
I was hired several years ago by a large company to give the keynote address at their annual company retreat. What I didn’t know at the time was that keynote speeches really stress me out. I was still finding my way as a speaker and felt stress every time I got on stage, so I didn’t really notice that there was MORE stress associated with this particular type of talk — until I was giving it. I was out of breath. I was very aware of the fact that my face was bright red. I was hot. I was wondering if everyone could see me sweating, even though I strategically chose a patterned pink dress that wouldn’t show sweat stains.
I was concerned about breaking away from my slides too much because I didn’t want to do that thing when you say too much about the slide you’re on, only to click over to the next slide and it describes the story you just told. My talk was supposed to be 60 minutes, but because I was so uncomfortable, I only talked for 30. I saw the woman who hired me glance up at the clock when I closed and asked if there were any questions. I’ll never forget the look on her face because I knew in that moment that I wasn’t delivering on my promise and she did, too.
I went out of my way during the 30-minute Q&A to tell long, funny stories that taught everyone useful life lessons. I tried to get the audience involved by asking them thought provoking questions that would hopefully add more value to my talk. I was furiously combing through my mental database of stories about myself and my clients that would help them. When all was said and done, several people came up and thanked me and said they enjoyed the presentation. I appreciated that, but I was disappointed because I knew I didn’t give the 60 minute talk I had promised.
I was never hired by that group again. I don’t know if the reason for that was because of my short speech or because they were looking to mix things up with new speakers, but that day taught me something extremely valuable.
- I don’t like giving speeches that require I sync my words up with my slides.
- I don’t like giving 60-minute monologues.
These points may seem like small observations, but they were huge for me because I was doing a lot of keynotes at that time. When I realized I didn’t like doing these types of talks, I started to seek out and recommend another format to clients: interactive workshops. These workshops would flow much differently: I would give a worksheet to everyone in the audience and they would get a chance to do the work on the spot while also having time to discuss what they’re learning. This meant I only needed to prepare a 10-minute intro, directions for the worksheet, and have some prepared stories to share during the discussion portions. The rest would take shape as the audience shared their thoughts, stories, and questions.
This model has worked well for me because it compliments my personality. I like to think on my feet. I like to discover moments with the audience, rather than manufacture them in my office weeks in advance and hope they match up with what the audience needs that night.
As a result of building talks that allow for more interaction, more discussion, and more discovery, I have felt more at ease and more present with my dance partner: the audience. I don’t like memorizing speeches, I never have. I don’t like canned openings and closings, I think they feel unnatural and lack something special. I tend to avoid doing the same thing twice and interactive workshops give me the chance to create something new every single time because my audience is always different.
This format took me many years to discover and I am still playing with it today. Another element of speaking that I’m more interested in right now is room setup, lighting, and temperature. It’s true that when you have a comfy space that makes people feel relaxed and at ease, they are more likely to engage with the experience.
I ignored the environment for a long time because I didn’t realize how much it mattered. Honestly, I was so focused on what I needed to say and making sure I wasn’t messing up that it didn’t occur to me to take care of my audience in this way. As I started to relax on stage and notice my surroundings, I was able to put more energy into revising the state of the room. I’m now in my 10th year of speaking and it’s only now becoming clear to me that this needs to be a consideration each and every time.
I’ve learned that I could put the chairs in a circle rather than theater style, which is when everyone is looking at the back of the head of the person in front of them or me. I could turn off one set of lights so it doesn’t feel like we are sitting directly on the sun. I could set the temperature to 68 degrees, so it’s comfortable enough to take your coat off, but not so hot that all you can think about is leaving the room for a breath of fresh air. I also learned that I could greet the audience as they entered and learn their name and why they were there. I could give them each a welcome sheet that featured the agenda, the worksheet, and information about me. I could create a warm up game that would introduce everyone in the room to their fellow participants, introvert or not.
What I’ve learned is that the role of the speaker is not just to walk on stage, deliver a talk, and go home. The role is actually much broader and deeper than that. The full role is to learn how you are most comfortable, how your audience is most comfortable, and to facilitate an experience that puts everyone in the best position to enjoy and potentially grow from the experience – even you.
I didn’t know this for a long time, and that’s okay. I think my talks were still beneficial and a good use of time for everyone, even though I was still working out what kind of experience I wanted to offer.
When I talked about the STAGE System in last month’s post, I presented you with the five elements that go into building the architecture of a speech that is truly yours. I encourage you to consistently work with the STAGE System and tweak it as you learn new things about yourself as a presenter. You may not yet know your speaking style, and that’s okay. Try things out. Try making jokes. Try moving a lot. Try not moving. Try making eye contact with each person for 3 seconds as you speak. Try taking long pauses between sentences or stories. Try using props. Try worksheets. Experimenting and searching for ease in your presentations is what will advance your journey as a speaker. Trying to bypass the learning and growing is what will lead to frustration and a lack of understanding of you, the speaker, the leader, the person who has the power to build something beautiful for everyone.
I encourage you to be patient with yourself and not force answers to appear. The best way to find answers is to go out and speak as often as possible. Keep giving speeches and keep listening to yourself. If you feel uncomfortable about something you are doing on stage, tap into that. Explore it. Listen to it. If you feel completely in your element and happy, that’s important to notice, too. Maybe there is comfort in something that you didn’t even know you were capable of.
I started taking improv classes a few months ago. I hate to admit it, but when I signed up, I was completely ignorant to what improv was. I thought it would teach me to be funny and help me think on my feet. I was half right. What improv has taught me is to look for ease in all situations. Don’t create difficulty where difficulty does not exist and if something feels hard, don’t do it. Improv has also taught me to be okay with “maybe” instead of always looking for a label for a situation, like that was “bad” or that was “good.” It just is. Noticing yourself and being aware of what is working for you and what is not is what will make your speaking journey more exciting, more rewarding, and more YOU.
And at the end of the day, what your audience wants most is YOU at your essence, not a version of yourself you think you’re supposed to be. The more YOU you bring to your presentations, the stronger your connection will be to your audience, the more you will connect to your material, and the more fun you will all have.
Don’t be afraid of the unfolding and don’t lose patience with the process. As far as I can tell, public speaking is a lifelong journey that will give you answers about yourself, about others, and about what matters most to you. Don’t miss the moments that matter and don’t skip over the moments that feel like a struggle. They’re all important and they are all your teachers.
Just be patient and keep speaking.
Angela Lussier is the founder of the Speaker Sisterhood and also an award-winning speaker, three-time author, and two-time TEDx presenter. She is the host of Claim the Stage, a public speaking podcast for courageous women. Her motto: Stop waiting. Start creating.