March 29, 2013

Does experience = complacency for speakers?

A little too comfortable? Photo Credit: BakkoBrats via Compfight cc
I wrapped up my "SpeakUP! 8 Daily Challenges to Build Your Confidence Muscles at Work, at Home, and in Front of an Audience" program yesterday with a group call to capture the learning and successes of the members.

One group member talked about how much confidence she had speaking to a room full of students, but wasn't sure she'd have the same confidence in a room full of colleagues or superiors. And it's a valid point: in her case, she's still lifting the lighter weights, getting her confidence muscles used to lifting. When she's ready to move onto the bigger weights - speaking to more difficult groups - it won't be easy or comfortable, but she'll pick up the heavier weights and start lifting until her confidence muscles are stronger.

Even one of the veteran speakers in the group felt that she was dusting off old weights she hadn't lifted in a long time. Which brought to mind two problems that experienced speakers face that beginners don't:

1. Rust.

2. Complacency.

A veteran speaker can get "rusty" if she doesn't speak on a regular basis. She can have years of experience under her belt, but can come back to the stage with stale anecdotes, a lot of butterflies, and mistakes like forgetting to engage the audience with a strong opening. Many of us have been there, when speaking has been a part of some jobs but not others, for example. Some of us will go months or years between speaking engagements when we were once sharp as a tack.

But if you know you're rusty, you can combat it with practice and thoughtfulness.

The more insidious problem for veteran speakers is complacency, especially when we have a lot of confidence in our message and delivery. This can cause a speaker to stop working on her skills, stop trying to improve, and stop making an effort with the audience. It's a place of being too comfortable, taking it a little too easy.

You know a complacent speaker when you see one: They have good skills, they look comfortable on stage, and they know their stuff. But they also look like they don't really care, like you're just one audience of hundreds, and they could close their eyes and still be able to pace the stage in their sleep. Sometimes they even speak in a cadence that feels memorized and robotic, and sometimes they forget who they're speaking to, interjecting references that have nothing to do with your group. But they don't even notice, and they just go on with their canned speech, oblivious to the fact that they are sleep-presenting.

Veteran speakers: Don't let yourself become complacent! Here are a couple of ways to ensure you always stay a little off-balance, a little uncomfortable:

1. Be in the moment

Always be present and give your full attention to your audience -- before the presentation by researching what they need, want and care about, and during the presentation by watching their body language and facial expressions, and asking questions to make sure you're on the right track. Listen, watch, and pay attention to your audience's nonverbal and verbal feedback.

2. Keep refreshing your references

I have some old favorite stories, examples and games that I like to use in presentations, but after a while, those activities are no longer fresh. Maybe the references are out of date, or maybe it's just that something better has come along. Don't be afraid to chuck out old stuff and bring in new stuff. When your material is fresh, you feel fresh, and you come across as fresh.

3. Rethink your arrangement

Even when you've given a presentation a million times, you will still find ways to shake it up when you look at it with a new perspective. Ask yourself if your first point should maybe be your second point. Maybe your third point should really be your first point. Or maybe there's a sub-point in the presentation that needs to be elevated to a new rank. I recently reviewed a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming conference that I've given many times, and realized that the order was completely wrong. I rearranged it and now it has a better flow, makes more sense and is a much stronger presentation. When's the last time you rearranged one of yours?

4. Keep practicing

Practicing out loud is still the best way to catch language that doesn't flow properly, words that you're not sure how to pronounce, and areas that need more audience interaction, among other things. Listen to yourself speak, pay attention to the flow, notice how long you're going without any engagement activities. Videotape your practice sessions if you really want to analyze your performance. Practicing out loud will help you catch the weak spots in your presentation that practicing in your head will not expose.

These are just a couple of ways I keep my presentations from getting stale, and keep myself from becoming too comfortable.

What do you do to keep from getting complacent when you're an experienced speaker?

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

Peter Billingham said...

Hi Lisa - I can identify exactly with your thoughts. I used to speak twice a week for about 30 - 40min each time for about 10 years. Then, stopped for a while, with the odd impromptu 'words" and once a twice more intense speaking after writing and delivering eulogies, something which is a strength (yes, I know a bit strange) but if you look at my career you will know why. Over the last few months joining toastmasters and with some opportunities overseas, I have had to "dust off" the abilities. I know that I have had to relearn, improve skills and where I was a bit more intuitive, now I am learning the true skills of rhetoric and speech writing. Reading this book on rhetoric really helped - from Sam Leith - can recommend. Also, recording speeches and listening back has helped and the ease now in which you can video is great feedback. But your last point is so important. At Toastmasters I see people who have a great idea for a speech, but just haven't practiced, and practiced out-loud, it shows. Thanks for the reminders!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Peter. Many of us cycle through speaking a lot and not speaking at all. It's easier to get back up to speed with experience, though!

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