I bet you never thought in a million years that I’d admit on this blog that there are things about public speaking that scare me. Well, there are. I’ve been in the speaking business for almost ten years now and while I’ve had my share of successes, I’ve also had a lot of non-successes (I’m trying to avoid referring to them as “complete failures“). Some of them were my fault while others could be blamed on other people, but these are mistakes that I’ll never forget – and that’s a good thing. You see, these are mistakes that I desperately do not want to repeat.
Okay, you probably want the juicy details so let’s talk about some of the mistakes I fear. The biggest fear I have is a disconnect regarding the contents of a presentation between me and the audience. In other words, they expect one talk but I give them another. I’ve had this happen to me more times than I care to admit. One time a client changed their mind about which topic they wanted me to speak on. I updated my speech but they didn’t update the description of the event in their guide so the audience members that chose my breakout session expected one thing but got something else. I gave the talk specified in my contract, but it didn’t matter to the audience – they were looking for something else. I’ve also had people misread a course description – one person showed up to a class that was in the “Public Speaking” section of the course catalog and had the words “Public Speaking” several times in the course description (and the course title) but was shocked to find out the class was about public speaking – yes, there isn’t much you can do about something like that. And when I first started out as a speaker, there were numerous times where the event organizer requested a talk on one topic but that topic wasn’t of interest to the audience — I’ve since learned to ask the right questions to avoid this.
Another issue I frequently run into now that I teach courses on social media is with technology. There are always risks when using any sort of technology, especially when demonstrating the live internet, and I warn the audience ahead of time about those risks. But I’ve also ran into issues where sites were down, blocked by a firewall or content filtering site or wouldn’t work with the browser version on the demo machine. Of course, the worst problem I’ve ever had happened when my hosting company stopped including blog hosting in my hosting plan and just shut this blog down. I noticed this an hour before I was teaching a class that included a module on blogging – talk about stress before a talk.
The final thing I fear is the bad audience member. While most of us think of rude hecklers when we hear that term, they are rare and are surprisingly, easier to deal with than some other folks. I’ve talked about the “Good Heckler” in another post – this is a person with good intentions, but is still ruining your presentation. But to me, the worst person to have in the audience is the “All About Me” type. I’ve been running into these types of people more frequently as of late. They are the ones that come to a course because of one or two of the items that will be covered and don’t care about the rest of the course material (or the fact that others in the room might be interested in the other topics). So they try to turn the class into a one on one coaching session. I actually had to speak to one person privately who repeatedly interrupted me, asking when I’d get to particular topic despite the fact that I had the order of the topics written on the board and stated five times when I’d get to it. I’ve had people take my courses only because their spouse, parent or employer made them and a few of these people had no intention of doing anything but doodling in the back of the room. And then I’ve had a few of those people that you can never satisfy, no matter how much personal attention you give them. In a small setting (less than 20 people), it’s pretty amazing how the presence of one bad apple can impact the rest of the audience. While it’s been a painful process (and I haven’t always taken the best course of action), I’ve learned to handle many of these situations and it’s strengthened my confidence as a speaker. But it’s still something that gives me added stress when I’d rather be focusing on the delivery of my presentation.
But the great thing about all of this is that these people are rare and the rest of the people I come into contact with more than cancel out the few bad apples. I’d say less than 10% of the people who take my public courses cause any sort of problem. In fact, last month I taught a public speaking class and every single person in that class was fantastic to work with. As for the other problems, they happen and they test your skills. I’ve learned from my mistakes and even if something wasn’t really my fault, I’ve learned to take steps to prevent the same problem from happening in the future. Of course, there are always new problems and that’s what makes this business (and life) interesting. So even if you are an experienced speaker and you find yourself feeling a bit nervous before a talk, just remember that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
James Feudo owns the Boston Web Design Agency JVF Solutions and loves blogging about personal development and communication in his spare time.