Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The cowardly lion: Are you afraid of your own power as a speaker?

What happens when a speaker coach hires a speaker coach? In my case, she discovers her inner cowardly lion.

You remember the cowardly lion, beloved character in The Wizard of Oz. He seemed bold, but quivered and quavered when confronted by a threat, a contradiction in terms.

I didn't think I was a cowardly lion when I asked fellow speaker coach Peter Botting to help me prepare to chair the European Speechwriters Network autumn conference in Brussels this month. We were bookends at the group's most recent conference in London--he opened the day as a speaker, and I closed it. We talked enough shop to discover we share a similar approach to coaching, particularly for people expert in a field. He was excited to learn about the research that experts prefer to be pushed, even to hear negative feedback, more so than novices.

You may wonder why a coach would get a coach. I don't lack experience, skill or nerve when it comes to public speaking or chairing meetings. But it's a poor chef who fails to keep her knives sharp. A trainer who seeks no training after she hits 'expert' status is just sharing the expertise of long ago, over and over again. I wanted to set the bar higher for myself. Peter struck me as a professional's professional, someone who could add value to the skills I already bring to the task. He agreed that I should push beyond rote and strive for exceptional.

Then I got what I asked for, and I clutched. I sent out lame drafts, things that shouldn't have seen the light of day. I went straight for rote, and clung to it. I argued. I threw punches at the wrong targets. Despite knowing better, I acted as any speaker might when pushed. It's been a while since this shoe was on the other foot, and you'll be relieved to hear that I'm just like anyone else on this score.

My coach listened, advised, nudged, and teased out the needed results. "I want to stretch you. Quality needs to be pushed," he'd say, reminding me that "good enough seldom is," a challenge to the ambitious lion if ever there were one. Finally, I realized the target of my angst was me. My coach was correct in pushing me to do better. I just needed to accept that I could. I had the inner lion, but needed her to stop being cowardly.

The poet Marianne Williamson wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." And if we are being honest, that's my deepest fear. CEO Mary Kopczynski gets at the same point when she urges Don't just lean in, speak up, describing her own pattern of saying "But I'm not qualified..." when asked to speak at professional conferences. Now she rephrases that as "Yes," a word of courage women speakers need to practice.

I worked on unpacking my reactions to this coaching, knowing that would help me and eventually, my clients. Normally, I am gregarious and analytical, my strong personality preferences. I know that when I get uncommunicative and emotional, I'm in a time of extreme stress. I'm also only slightly extroverted, and coaching can feel as if boundaries are being crossed. I doubled down on sleep, yoga, meditation, all to take the stress out of the equation, as it was just a signal of something deeper. I rearranged my schedule to avoid coaching others and getting coached on the same days.

I knew without question that I'd picked the right coach. He was doing just what I'd asked him to do, and my feeling turned inside-out was something I could control. I went back to responding, rather than reacting, to the challenges. I decided to say "yes" to my coach, and even better, "got to yes" with myself. Instead of running from the power, I ran toward it. At one critical point, my coach reminded me that "turning yourself inside out is a bit like spring cleaning--you find old treasures and assets almost forgotten." I'd been in search of grace notes and mindset and themes when I decided to seek coaching, and I found them.

Sometimes I tell my most stressed coaching clients about two scientists who attended the same workshop of mine, but gave me feedback forms that were exact opposites. One trainee wrote:
If you had only told us at the beginning precisely what to say and do, we would have done it perfectly. Instead, you let us experiment, and we didn't do well.
But another trainee in the same group had a different view:
By putting us into 'hothouse' conditions, limiting our time and our ability to practice, you forced us to display our default behaviors, which made them apparent to us...and then we could fix them. Brilliant approach.
That first trainee had fallen for a myth we tell ourselves about public speaking, and what training requires. We think speaking should be easy, and the training in it easily done. But in reality, speaking is more complex than we are willing to admit, and it's the speaker, not the coach, who has to do the work. Often, I describe the environment I create in a training workshop or coaching session as "a safe place to fail." Without that kind of trust, my clients can't reveal their soft spots, defaults and flaws. Nor can they correct them. And that goes double for a speaker coach when she's on the receiving end of coaching.

In Washington, you can't throw a rock without hitting a speaker coach or media trainer. I've hired or worked with many of them, and have heard them say the same things over and over again. It's a cookie-cutter, off-the-shelf, robotic method of coaching. Peter takes a personalized approach, uncomfortable yet powerful precisely because it focuses on you as a unique speaker. Far from merely spouting tips and advice, Peter listens and reads with care, catching nuances and seeing gaps I miss. His ear is especially sensitive to what an international audience will hear, a real advantage as I head into this global conference. But it's also good at catching woolly thinking and flabby language.

He's also good at pushing and insisting you do better, saying, "Good coaching can change my clients’ careers, their reputations, their income and their lives. So I apologise for not apologising to my clients if I am sometimes tough with them." Peter's seismic approach to speaker coaching can make you feel as if there's earth moving under that once-stable place you were standing. You can view that as a danger, something outside your control, and run away from it. Or you can view it as the early rumblings of your own power as a speaker, and run toward it. As Ursula K. Leguin's great metaphor for women as public speakers says,"We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains." Call me a mountain lion, then. I'm ready.

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