In elementary school, kids teased me all the time. They poked fun at me for all kinds of things. Then one day, that began to change.
I was in sixth grade and was on lunch break, sitting at my desk eating my sandwich. At one point, the teacher stepped out of the room, and one of the kids got up and walked towards me. I could tell by the way my classmates reacted that he was coming over to make fun of me.
“Just keep your head down and keep quiet,” I said to myself, “and eventually this guy will go away.”
As I sat there, hoping not to be noticed, the boy said, “Nice pants, Danny. I would have bought the same pair, but my penny rolled down the sewer.”
Back in my day, this was known as a “burn.” Kids tormented each other with these insults and everyone would laugh. “It’s okay, Danny. Just keep quiet, and he’ll go away,” I told myself. But instead, without even thinking, I said, “Why should it be a problem that your penny rolled down the sewer? Isn’t that where your family lives?”
Not only did I stun the boy and the class, but I stunned myself as well. “Where the hell did that come from?” I asked myself. I was generally friendly. Maybe I always had something I wanted to say, but when you go to school wearing a pair of pants your parents probably did buy for a penny, you keep a low profile. I had no idea I could communicate so effectively.
The whole class exploded with laughter, and the would-be bully was reduced to shreds. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t popular, it didn’t matter that I was coming from a position of weakness. All that mattered was knowing what to say. From that day forward, whether I was wearing penny pants or an outfit made of pennies, I knew elementary school – and the rest of the world for that matter – would be a lot less scary as long as I communicated well.
The ability to communicate is one of the most powerful and useful tools in our kit to succeed in our career, in business and even at home. You may have the greatest idea in the world, but if you can’t explain it in a way that persuades people to listen to you, your idea
will do you little good. You may be the most qualified job applicant on the planet, but if you can’t communicate well enough to get past the interview, you won’t get the job. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how good your ideas are if you can’t get anyone to listen to you.
By the same token, you could be coming from a position of weakness, like wearing a lame pair of pants, but if you know what to say, and can say it so everyone is compelled to listen to you, you have real power.
GETTING OVER THE FEAR
People struggle with public speaking and communication in general. If you’re good at it, you have an automatic advantage over many others. One of the main reasons people are generally bad at public speaking is fear. In one of his jokes, Jerry Seinfeld refers to a statistic that reveals a majority of people fear public speaking more than death. As Seinfeld points out, this means most people at a funeral would rather be the guy in the casket than the guy delivering the eulogy. But you don’t need to hide in a casket to avoid the pain of public speaking, all you need is to understand where the fear comes from, so you can conquer it.
To understand why public speaking or communicating in general is so scary for so many people, let’s start by breaking down what’s involved in effective communication.
Essentially, there are two main elements to a speech or any other kind of presentation: the message and the delivery. We need to think of what we are going to say (the message) and how we’re going to say it (the delivery).
Whether it’s giving a speech, interviewing for a job or breaking bad news to the boss, it’s usually the delivery part that makes us most nervous. But that’s a misplaced fear because the reason the delivery is so scary is that we’re not comfortable with the message
itself. That’s where the real problem lies. Many of us aren’t sure of what we’re going to say, the order we’re going to say it or what our actual point is, so of course
we get nervous when we need to speak.
On the flip side, think about the last time someone asked you to speak about something you know really well and are passionate about – maybe your hobby or a vacation you just took or what you did on the weekend.
As you told your story, others gathered around to listen. There you were, with no time to prepare and no training in public speaking, telling a story
with ease and confidence to a small crowd. How did that happen? It happened because you were comfortable with your message.
Understand your message, master your message and the delivery will come more easily.
STOP FOCUSING ON THE WRONG THING
Although the message and the delivery are the two main elements of preparing a speech, a lot of people will unnecessarily and unwisely spend much of their time on
a third category: visual aids. They put hours in to these and only minutes in to what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it. But visual aids are meant to be just that: something that aids your message. The message itself must be your focus. After all, have you ever heard anyone say, “I didn’t like the speaker, but wow, those slides were great”?
No matter how nice they look, visual aids won’t hold your audience’s attention – only your message will. And here’s an extra tip: If your message does require a visual
aid, don’t include a lot of text in it. Your audience isn’t going to read long paragraphs off a slide. Instead, use charts, pictures or quotes that back up your message.
There’s also people who place too much importance on other minor elements of a speech like body language or the tone and pitch of their voice. Only when it comes to things like flirting is body language more powerful than what you’re actually saying verbally. As for the tone of your voice, if it’s so important, why is Stephen Hawking so captivating? When we listen to him, we’re hearing a computerized voice, yet we’re still amazed by his brilliant message.
So, at least for now, forget about visual aids, forget about body language, forget about tone and your voice and focus on your message. If you master the message, all of the other pieces will start to fall into place.