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The Collaborative Art of Public Speaking

Tackle presentations by teaming up, even if only behind the scenes.

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Imagine this: You have just accepted an invitation to speak to an esteemed audience on a topic that excites you, so you feel honored. But soon enough, the reality of actually having to prepare for your presentation sinks in. Plus, your schedule is already packed, and adding one more plate to spin sounds daunting.

If you’re like most people I know, your first step is to engage in active procrastination, whether because of anxiety, the tedium of organizing your talk and developing slides, or simply a distaste for being the center of attention. What could you do instead of putting this off, which will just add to your angst?

Collaborate. This could mean asking someone to serve as a co-presenter or just to help you prepare. If you’re an introvert, you may want to draft your presentation slides on your own and then solicit input from a trusted peer. But whether you’re an introvert or extrovert (both of whom can get overwhelmed with even the idea of preparing for a talk), you can vastly improve the quality of your presentation and better manage your stress by developing and/or practicing it with a good colleague or friend.

This type of collaboration is a much-overlooked, yet highly valuable approach that can enable many presenters to perform even better than their best to date. In fact, here’s a description of the first key behavior listed in the “Presentation/Training Delivery” competencies dictionary for scientists and other employees at the National Institutes of Health: “Prepares thoroughly by enlisting the support of peers, mentors, coaches, or supervisors to observe a practice of the presentation; gathers feedback prior to delivery; and refines content accordingly.”

In short, having another’s input can create a powerful synergy that yields greater results than either of you could produce alone. Working alongside others on important tasks like this can also interrupt any feelings of isolation you may experience.

Keep in mind, however, that it’s important to find a collaborator whom you respect and trust in terms of providing you with confidential, honest, and useful feedback. Otherwise, you may never enjoy the benefit of collaborating because of, understandably, fearing judgment or gossip.

I teach a presentation skills course to graduate students at New York University, and many of them have told me that the practice of collaborating on their talks has been among the best presentation experiences they’ve had. Here’s how I introduce the idea to them: I announce the homework of preparing a three-minute presentation for delivery during the next class session. I always strongly recommend – but don’t require – that they rehearse with a classmate.

At the next class, I ask for a show of hands: “Who practiced out loud with a partner?” Not a single hand goes up. The students then deliver their presentations, and most express disappointment in their performance.

​I then ask them to pair up in class, both to practice their talk and to receive feedback. Next, they present again in front of the group. The difference in their two performances is astounding. They see for themselves the power of collaboration in improving their presentations – even after just 20 minutes.

What accounts for the positive changes? Before pairing up, I ask them to pick one or two specific criteria they want to focus on, based on the material we have covered. Some choose enunciation or speaking more slowly, or keeping their feet planted, or making better eye contact with audience members. After practicing with their partner, all of them measurably improve in the specific skill they chose. Their gains are rooted in working with others…collaborating!

I also use a grid to help my students and clients isolate the aspects of preparation and delivery that they excel in, as well as need to enhance. You can find a list of some typical criteria in my story, “Cool Tool for Public Speakers.”

Let’s take a closer look at collaborations between introverts, extroverts, and pairs comprising both, and even those who consider themselves ambiverts. I’m generalizing here because we’re all complex human beings. The idea is not to label anyone or even ourselves. Instead, through awareness of our own and others’ personality styles, we can foster productive collaborations by playing to each other’s strengths.

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If you’re an introvert, who typically draws your energy from quiet, solo pursuits, you may prefer to come up with your own ideas first, conduct research, craft your content, and draft visual aids. However, it can help to get feedback on your presentations before you go on.

If you’re an extrovert, who typically draws your energy from social interaction, you may have dozens of ideas, but find it challenging to focus on a clear beginning, middle, or ending for any of them. And research? If it means sitting in a library and thinking, just the thought of it can be annoying. So how can you use your upbeat, social nature to your advantage, and still come up with a memorable presentation? Collaborating in the preparation stages can help you focus because you’ll have an audience for thinking your ideas out loud.

Regardless of your personality type, you will benefit enormously by rehearsing in front of others, even just an audience of one. This is the case whether you plan to present alone or with a co-presenter. If finding another person isn’t feasible, just rehearse out loud by yourself in a mirror – or into a smartphone video (selfie style).

Source: StockUnlimited

Introverts Collaborating with Other Introverts

This is the most chill scenario, in the best sense of the word. If you are co-presenting, you’ll likely want to discuss what you want to accomplish in the talk, come to agreement on an outline, and decide who will take on which section. Then, set a time to meet again after you’ve each had a chance to do some solo work. After you both emerge from your deep dives into research-land, you can then help each other polish your presentations (or parts of a single presentation).

Perhaps a quiet conference room, cafe, or a bench in a park will be your favorite place to meet. But wherever you choose, your mutual strengths will likely include your attention to detail, ability to concentrate, and affinity for one-on-one conversations. If you’re also an attentive listener, that skill will be an asset to the partner you’re coaching.

Source: StockUnlimited

Extroverts Collaborating with Other Extroverts
Party time. Lots of thinking out loud and interjecting (or interrupting, depending on your perspective), brainstorming, high-fiving, and emoting. This is in the middle of a bustling workspace. Turn on the music to add to the energy. Colleagues are dropping by – the more, the merrier. How stimulating!
When two extroverts co-present, chances are they’ll spend more time together thinking aloud rather than solo to co-create the presentation.

Focus on the strengths you both bring as extroverts, which may include your appreciation for presentations you find stimulating because of their variety and breadth. You could also take risks by adding storytelling and improvisation to your joint talk to make it more engaging, or including an audience participation segment. However you go about it, you’ll want to decide which parts each of you will take on and how you want to move the presentation forward, but likely it will be with broad brush strokes you co-construct.

Introverts and Extroverts Collaborating With One Another

This collaboration does best when both parties appreciate their stylistic differences. If you’re the introvert, arrive well rested and refreshed to prevent sensory overload. Be ready for some small talk to get the conversation going. And be prepared for some brainstorming, since extroverts tend to think out loud. Just as you often prefer to think quietly, your extrovert partner needs to socialize their ideas. Refer to “Conquering the Introvert-Extrovert Communication Gap, Part 1” for more tips on how to communicate well with extroverts.

If you’re the extrovert, get your social fix before meeting with your introvert partner. And just as you may enjoy chitchat to get a conversation started, your introvert partner may prefer getting down to business. Another difference is that you may be more accustomed to interjecting a thought into the conversation when you’re feeling energized by an idea, while your partner could experience that as overwhelming. So consider counting to five (or maybe 25!) to help your introvert partner get enough time to finish making their points. See Part 2 of the story I mentioned above for more tips on how to communicate well with introverts. If you relate to both introvert and extrovert preferences, read both stories.

Remember: Planning a presentation together requires introverts to step up energetically and extroverts to make space.

Source: StockUnlimited

Collaboration Tools
While you’re developing the content of your presentation, you may find it helpful to share your initial thoughts, an outline, and maybe a draft of your slides with a collaborator.

I’m a fan of sharing files using online tools like Google Docs or Google Slides, which enable you to collaborate in real-time, as if you’re sharing a computer screen but from the comfort of your own workstation. But, then again, I’m an introvert who likes her own space. If you’d prefer to meet in person, do so. Or, try a hybrid approach. Just be sure to find what works best for both of you.

Ground Rules
Introverts usually need some silence to consider a point, while extroverts almost reflexively jump in when an idea emerges. One of you may not mind texting or getting phone calls during your meetings, while it could greatly distract or annoy the other. That’s where ground rules come in. Many people make assumptions about others’ preferences based on their own.

Here’s a starting point for some variables to agree upon in advance, so your collaboration can be harmonious, productive, and mutually rewarding:​

  • Virtual (audio or video) versus in-person meetings
  • If in-person, where to meet
  • Acceptable level of ambient quiet versus noise
  • Number of meetings and duration of each one
  • Time of meeting (consideration of disparate time zones, energy levels, cultural inclinations around time)
  • Guidelines for feedback:
    • Succinct versus detailed
    • General versus specific
    • Ratio of positive to constructive comments
    • Opportunities for “do-overs”
    • Set times for feedback or interruptions along the way
    • Committing to confidentiality
    • Being mindful of trying to keep ego and sensitivity in check

In a nutshell, collaborating with the right partner in terms of trust, respect, and reliability can reduce the dread (and procrastination time) of preparing for a presentation. Welcome your peers to scaffold you and do the same for them. Everyone will be better supported – and you’ll often get better results.

Copyright 2017 © Nancy Ancowitz

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