Seven Life Lessons From My Public Speaking Career

If you address people with missionary zeal, you'll lose them.

Posted Aug 11, 2010

Public speaking is terrifying, but  the risks are minor compared to opening up a difficult conversation with someone in your personal life.

Public speaking, after all, is a hit-and-run affair. Even if you've made a total fool of yourself, you know you'll never have to face those people again. They'd rather listen to you anyway than be home paying their bills or figuring their taxes. Plus, the people who come to hear you will be far more forgiving of your foibles than they would if you were a brain surgeon or even, say, a concert violinist.

And if your pre-podium anxiety becomes more than you can bear, you can simply choose to turn down public speaking invitations.

But none of us can avoid private speaking-the anxious conversations that take place with the most important people in our lives. We cannot not communicate with those individuals, because even our distance or our silence conveys something.

I'm happy to say that hanging out in front of large audiences has given me some tools for communicating better with people in my personal world.

Here are some lessons I've gleaned from my public speaking career that may apply to your personal conversations when the emotional climate is anxious or otherwise intense.

1. Establish a connection with your listeners by schmoozing about the easy stuff before leaping into a difficult idea that makes you (and others) nervous. If you can make people laugh early on, so much the better.

2. Make clear that the subject at hand matters to you, but keep in mind that talking about a serious subject doesn't require you to convey your message in heavy, morose tones.

3. Let others draw their own conclusions. If you address people with missionary zeal-suggesting that if they don't agree with you they're deeply misguided and may go straight to hell-you'll lose them. • You'll also lose them if you go on for too long.

4. Figure out when you can be spontaneous and wing it, and when to do your homework, prepare, and even rehearse.• Meet people wherever they are. Yes, you can make the exact same point to your cousin who is the administrative director of the Berkeley Gay and Lesbian Student Coalition and your uncle who heads the Christian Coalition for Family Values. But you can't make that point in exactly the same way. It's not that you're aiming to be a wishy-washy, accommodating chameleon. But if you want to be heard, you must help others feel at ease.

5.Treat every question and comment with respect. It never helps to shame people or make them feel stupid-even when they're trying their darndest to do that to you.

6. Don't pretend to have all the answers. It's fine to say, "That's an interesting idea. I'll think about that one." People actually like it when you indicate that you're human.

7.You can't make anybody hear you. Your daughter may be paying rapt attention to your every word, or she may be fully absorbed in contemplating the ceiling or entertaining her private sexual fantasies. Your primary focus should be on what you want to say and how to best say it, rather than on needing a particular response from the other party.

Public speaking sure did teach me a thing or two. I learned that I'm never going to transcend fear, but I needn't let it stop me. I learned that survival is a perfectly reasonable goal to set for myself the first dozen or so times I face a dreaded situation. I learned to observe my worst mistakes in a curious, self-loving way. I learned to hang on to the life raft that is my sense of humor. I learned that I must show up. Good lessons for all of life.