Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why did you say yes to this speaking gig? Why the coach needs to know

I had just one hour by phone to coach this speaker, an academic professor, for a five-minute pitch to be delivered in a public competition for extra grant funding. We could have started anywhere: With my notes on her slides, questions about delivery and timing, the actual content.

Instead, she spent 15 minutes telling me why the coaching and this speaking task were far, far beneath her. Her department chair had ridiculed the competition and forbidden its name to be spoken or written in emails. Her colleagues pitied her. She had no idea who the audience was, nor why they would care. She herself didn't see why she was wasting her time on it. After 15 minutes of that, I wondered that for myself. So I asked what I always ask:

"Why'd you say yes?"

I've used that question over and over with speakers, backstage at TEDMED, on the phone for coaching calls, in person when we're alone for a training session. It's a question I use most often for the speaker who objects to being the speaker. And I don't accept pat answers like, "Well, it's an honor to be asked" or "My boss told me I had to." I really want to get at the speaker's own motivation for having taken on this apparently abhorrent-to-them task. After all, public speaking is a choice you make, even in work situations where you are required to speak. You chose the job that came with public speaking tasks. More often, though, this comes up with speakers for whom the talk actually is optional.

With a nice, nervous speaker, the answer becomes a helpful prompt to bring them back to the reason they are going through with it: To get investors, build a reputation, share a story, finally have the chance to get on stage. But with a speaker who's a bad cocktail of nerves and narcissism, I sometimes don't get a chance to get that question in. The worst example was a top executive who used 2 hours and 45 minutes of our 3-hour half-day session to explain to me why he did not now need, had never needed, and would never need speaker coaching. Sometimes, like the professor, it's 15 minutes out of an hour. And, while I hate to point this out, I get paid either way. Your choice to spend that money in complaint is your choice.

With the professor, at the 15-minute mark, I asked my motivation question, which silenced her--she didn't have a ready answer. So I jumped in and pointed out that she'd just spent one-quarter of our time telling me that she didn't want to do this, and did she want to spend any of the remaining time finding out what she could do to make the presentation a winning one? To her credit, she stopped whining and got focused, but who knows how much further we might have gone in the wasted 15 minutes?

These examples are why I spend considerable time vetting clients in advance of signing a contract to coach them for speaking. If the client is hiring me to coach others, I urge them to screen participants so that the group is willing to be coached, rather than showing up for reasons that have nothing to do with wanting to be there. That makes all the difference in the world to the success of a coaching project in public speaking.

You may not be hiring a coach anytime soon, but you can borrow my question and ask it of yourself in those moments when you doubt your ability to get up and speak, or your practice is going badly, or you're just not sure whether this is worth the trouble. Ask yourself why you said yes to this, and be honest. Sometimes, the answer will be, "You don't have to like it, you just have to do it." But other times, you'll find a deeper motivation that's meaningful to you. Often, keeping that motivation in mind will carry you through even the most difficult of speaking tasks. And next time, say yes with that firmly in mind.

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