Thursday, April 14, 2016

6 things you might be hiding behind as a public speaker

Playwright Harold Pinter said, "One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." Perhaps that's the origin of the lectern* and the reason why so many speakers stay tucked behind it.

But speakers, clever beings, have found many things behind which to hide. Lecterns are almost the least of it. Here are six things you might be hiding behind when you speak:
  1. Certainty: In "Without a doubt," Seth Godin notes that "Certainty is a form of hiding. It is a way of drowning out our fear, but it's also a surefire way to fail to see what's really happening around us." Are you being too sure of yourself or your facts when you speak? It is, among other things, a highly effective way of shutting down audience contributions. Is that what you're trying to do?
  2. The length of your talk: Speakers who use every second of the time allotted for their own remarks are hiding behind the clock, often as a way to avoid taking questions from the audience or to defy the organizer, chair, or moderator. If you choose to hide this way, know that it's a choice that is obvious (and annoying) to audiences and limits your own ability to grow as a speaker. Balancing the allotted time between your talk and the audience's time to speak is a better approach.
  3. Humor and throat-clearing: Throat-clearing is the technical term for all the wasted content at the start of a talk or presentation. It's where you hear or see disclaimers (see below), jokes, cartoons, pictures of the speaker's kids that have no relevance to the presentation, lots of thank-yous and acknowledgements, and comments like, "As I was walking across your beautiful campus today, I couldn't help but think what a wonderful organization this is..." All of those are screens behind which the speaker can hide while he gets comfortable with the mic and the room and the crowd. But since throat-clearing and unrelated humor can waste precious audience attention, revise your approach. Sprinkle thank-yous and acknowledgments and pertinent humor throughout your talk, and give us a strong, focused start instead.
  4. Public disclaimers: It's the apparent opposite of the overly certain speaker. The most overused of these disclaimers is "Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking," now perhaps the most trite type of throat-clearing at the start of the speech. But your disclaimer might be something else: "I'm not the expert on this, but..." or "I'm just the substitute speaker" or even "I'll be brief," a promise to the audience that you won't go on too long. You're in effect giving yourself permission to not be perfect or telling the audience not to judge you, out loud. Try saying these things to yourself, but not the audience, next time. They're not adding to your image or your talk.
  5. Your outfit: You might choose too-tall heels to give yourself powerful height, but make it impossible for you to move around the stage, a safer stance. Or you might suit up with a power jacket, lots of jewelry, a distracting pattern, or a look more conservative than usual. Nothing's wrong with any of those items unless you're using them to hide your authentic self or create a speaker who's taller, more conservative, or visually distracting or bland than you are normally. Think through why you're choosing what you're choosing. It's important to feel good about what you're wearing, and feel comfortable in it--but neither of those things involves hiding.
  6. Your slides: Even though your slides are behind you, many speakers have confided to me that they use (or over-use) slides as a means of hiding on stage. The idea, however mistaken, is that you can distract the audience visually, so they're not looking at you. Trouble is, humans like looking at other humans, particularly the ones up on the stage. Use these tips to declutter your slides, and then figure out how you're going to handle your nerves, instead. 
Those are just six of the things speakers hide behind. What else are you hiding behind? Share on The Eloquent Woman on Facebook.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by dan-morris)

*Reminder: The lectern is what you stand behind and put your notes and water bottle on. The podium is what you stand on, aka the platform or stage, no matter what you hear at airline gates.

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