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Professional Speaking 101

Posted on Nov 20, 2016

Have you ever wanted to speak about something but were afraid to? There could have been a variety of reasons for your fear. Perhaps you were not confident in your presentation skills? When you were a new employee somewhere, maybe you didn’t know your audience quite yet? Were you afraid you didn’t know enough to speak up? These are just a sample of excuses that people just like you may use to not speak. In chapter two of The Analects, Confucius wrote “What you know, you know, what you don’t know, you don’t know. This is true wisdom.” In other words - true wisdom comes from knowing what you do and do not know. This article aims to guide you how to speak like the true professional that you are. It also requires for you to be honest with yourself; you’ll need to admit what you do and do not know. You’ll also need to do some hard work.

Let’s begin with a simple assumption that most people would make: because you are in front of the audience, those unfamiliar with your topic are likely to consider you to be an expert. That is a dangerous assumption indeed. Perhaps you’ve avoided speaking on a particular topic that you are incredibly passionate about. Your reasoning is simple: you do not feel like you are an expert on the subject. What if you have just begin learning a topic and want to share it with a group of your peers? You do not need to be a subject matter expert to discuss something. The simplest way to put your mind at ease is to simply set expectations with your audience. Explain who you are, why you’re here, what you’re going to talk about, and what your experience with the talk is. As long as a proper set of expectations between you and the audience are followed, there will mutual respect. Ask yourself: do you have the experience to talk about this? If not, will you have enough time to gain that experience between now and your speaking engagement?

What if someone challenges you with a question you don’t have an answer to? Or what if you are unsure? Be honest. Better to make light of the situation than to provide an incorrect answer or estimate. The truth is, people in the room can pull out their phone and fact check you within a few seconds. Unless you’re a comedian, there is no reason to lie. When someone provides a challenge, consider it an intellectual challenge. You now must consider your stance based on the perspective, evidence, or argument that someone else has provieded. However, stick to the expectations you set. What about the heckler? If you ever find yourself in the room with one, you should feel comfortable ignoring their input. Given the environment, asking for someone to be escorted out is within your right if they are truely being unruly. However, if someone is heckling you should take a second to consider if your discussion has given then reason to (such as the speaker taking a dominant position, excluding audience members, and more). Sometimes all a joker needs is some recognition and they will become your biggest ally. Truthfully: if you are challenged, can you keep your cool? Consider roleplaying this scenario out with someone before speaking.

Now that we’ve gotten some of the more social aspects of professional speaking out of the way, it is time to discuss the topic that you will be presenting to an audience. This event could be a conversation during a meeting at work or a presentation at a conference. First, you must know the topic that you will be covering. If you do not know the topic, what will you bring to the discussion? What if you want to lead a discussion for newbies on a topic, that is alright! You’ll still need to know enough to be dangerous about your topic. This means that you’ve done your research (you should also check out Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research). You should also be aware of your audience. If you are speaking at an event, look up past panels and topics covered. If you walk in blind - and this will happen at some point in your career - take the lead and use getting to know people as a way to include them (and their ideas) into your conversation, presentation, or lecture. Comedians employ this technique when performing with a live audience and you should to! Can you feel comfortable enough with yourself to engage others and make them part of your dialogue?

It is crucial to plan properly for your presentation. Some discussions will not give you a moment to research or plan. That’s okay - roll with it. However, most of the time you’re going to speak to an audience you’ll have a little bit of prep time. You should give yourself some time to think about how you would approach your subject as if you were a member of your audience. Then, write down how your plan to discuss your topic. Bullet point your ideas out into steps. Formulate these steps into discussion/learning objectives. I recommend trying to find a series of three key themes to a talk that I am about to give. I then break them down into four to six steps which I re-word into objectives. The objectives should be worded with the audience in mind. If we are going to teach children how to brush their teeth, a reasonable objective would be “understand how to brush your molars”. Once you have that information, you can begin preparing a slide deck, notecards, or whatever you will be presenting with. This is going to take time. Do not half ass it; everyone in attendance will know. If you are using a technical gadget to present, try to find out what sort of video input/output they offer (it is embarrassing to show up and not have an HDMI to x adapter and make a crowd wait while one is found). Will you take the actual time to create meaningful resources? Or will your presentation be doomed from the start because you didn’t put enough work into planning?

Finally, you need to put all of this together. That requires taking everything you read, trying to remember it, panicking, and throwing it out of the window. There are going to be mistakes. You’ll have someone give you a hard time. Perhaps you’ll stutter once or twice or one too many ‘uh’s drop from your mouth. That is okay. Professional speaking - just like everything else - requires practice to get better at. After you finish speaking, take a deep breathe and give yourself a moment for a mental pat on the back. Make a quick note of the one thing you wish you could improve next time (perhaps your delivery, objectives, or tone). Make a quick note of one thing that you’re proud of (perhaps you tried a new technique and it worked out). Good job for going out there. It takes courage to speak in front of an audience. As long as you are honest, have some knowledge of the topic, set proper expectations, and know your audience: things will be okay.