August 12, 2015

Lessons from driving: Don't be a mechanical speaker

(c) Jenny Rollo
Do you remember what it was like when you were learning how to drive? There were so many things to pay attention to, so many details.

Where do I put my hands and my feet? When is it too soon or too late to press the brake pedal? How much pressure do I put on the gas? How exactly can I keep my eyes on the road if I'm also trying to look into two rear-view mirrors? And how exactly do I change the radio station while keeping both hands on the wheel?

I remember scraping against a pole in a narrow driveway because I just didn't have a concept of how wide my mom's car was!

When you're learning, every move is a conscious one. It can be overwhelming and even scary - especially when you're on the road in a 3,500-pound vehicle, trying to follow the rules of the road, drive the speed limit, change lanes, not crash into anything and not get a ticket!

Now, think about what it's like for you after having been driving for 30 or 40 years.

Most of what we do is completely unconscious. It's just natural to move our feet, hands, and eyes simultaneously in the practice of braking, accelerating, entering traffic, avoiding a raccoon crossing the road, taking a call on Bluetooth, and a million other things we do every day. In fact, I imagine that all of us have had that experience where we're SO much on autopilot that we get to a place and don't even know how we got there.

As a speaker, you aim for somewhere between ultra-conscious and ultra-autopilot.

If you have to consciously think about every motion, every facial expression, every story, you come across as wooden, rigid, or staged.

However, if you deliver every presentation on autopilot, then you lack attention and presence, and you lose your connection to the audience.

Both extremes put you into a mechanical mode that your participants can see and feel, making for an uncomfortable audience experience, to say the least.

How do you develop this speaking approach that's conscious but not too self-conscious, and autopilot but not in the clouds?

One thing: Practice.

Get in front of audiences every chance you get. Speaking to lots of audiences helps you get over the self-conscious over-awareness of everything your body and mind are doing.

Speaking to lots of audiences also allows you to get used to being in the moment and getting used to going with the flow of unexpected conversations and relationships that arise with each new group.

I certainly don't want to go back to the old days of having to think about every single thing my body is doing when I'm on stage. But I don't want to become so complacent about speaking that I don't even connect with my audiences.

How about you? Are you more self-conscious or more autopilot? How can you come closer to the middle?

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