I started my public speaking career at a viewing for a deceased family friend. I was in fifth grade, and a relatively quiet kid.
Every morning it was a goal to leave the house before my neighbors, The Coleman’s. We went to the same school, and we would leave our houses at about the same time. I don’t know why this was a competition. In actuality, it was a one-woman competition. There must not have been a lot going on when I was 10, or maybe I was chasing the next high after turning “double digits.”
I would look out the bathroom window of our guest room, which was on the first floor, and see if the Coleman’s garage door had gone up, yet. If it hadn’t, I knew we had some time — if it had, I knew I needed to get my little sister up and moving.
One morning I watched Mr. Coleman and the boys (at the time, third grade, second grade, and three years old) pull out of the driveway. Gah. Actually, I’m not sure if the youngest was in the car.
I don’t know why I remember that moment on that day, but I do. There had been plenty of moments where I watched their profiles usher into the car, hear the clomp of the car door shut and begin my day flustered that we would arrive at school after the Coleman boys.
I didn’t know it was the last time I would see Mr. Coleman alive. Mike suffered a heart attack later that day and died.
Mr. Coleman had this thing where he would tell me to put my helmet on every time I rode my bike. Even if I was riding it in the short, flat driveway. I didn’t particularly care for this — after all I was an experienced rider. I had been riding a bike since I was three and a half, and I felt pretty darn comfortable on it. The street we lived on was fairly quiet and there was a cul-de-sac just a few houses down. He wouldn’t scold me or anything like that, but he would say, “Now, Sarah Kate, you need to put a helmet on.”
I don’t know if my parents are just the old-school type (actually, yes, I know this to be true), but they never really enforced the helmet thing. More on how I struggled through moderate to severe injuries in life with only an ice pack later (love you mom). #GotThatGritYo
At the viewing, I remember being extremely alert and hyper-focused on what was happening, but I don’t have any memory of being frightened of the body. I was taking it all in — as children do — by looking up and around. I remember not quite being able to see the podium between the rows of people sitting in front of me. I remember someone saying that if anyone had any words to say, they were welcome to come up and speak.
“Well that applies to me; I have some words to say. As a neighbor and the oldest of our little group (3 Coleman boys and 1 younger sister), I have a responsibility to say something.”
I felt compelled to stand up and walk to the podium; a real sense of urgency and necessity. It was as if I had no nerves or embarrassment coursing through my body. I never thought that this opportunity wasn’t for me, too.
I stood up, walked to the podium, looked out at a sea of faces, and told the story of how Mr. Coleman always urged me to wear my helmet, but more importantly, how he cared about me.
I would later learn that my dad thought I was going to be sick and was thus excusing myself.
A few years later, I won third place in my middle school’s oratorical contest.
In college and grad school, I gave countless speeches in classes, two of which resulted in national or state conference presentations. As a high school counselor, I gave hour-long presentations multiple times a year for three years to high school parents and students.
Most recently, I won the Steve Jobs Award for Best Public Speaking at the conclusion of my General Assembly UX Design Immersive Program; an award which was voted on by my peers. Thanks, guys.
I don’t know where this little talent came from, but I like having it in my back pocket. I like surprising people when they say (in my mind), “How’s this quiet girl going to pull this off?”
The Bottom Line:
I’ve sucked at plenty of presentations. I’ve told weird jokes that wander off and never find their way back. I recall jokes or little comments that totally fell flat and stared up at me from the floor in agony while I tried to get back on track. However, through all those painful moments, I’ve gleaned a few tips that I hope will help you in your own public speaking opportunities.
- Try to love that vomit feeling in the pit of your stomach. Reframe your nerves to reflect straight up action mode. Fight or flight: choose fight.
- Practice out loud and say all the weird ass things that come to mind. Just get them out of your system. That story of your first kiss? Why are you telling that story? Go on an introspective journey in your car about how it might be relevant, but then drop it like it’s hot before presenting.
- Remember that you are telling a story. What elements make sense and what detail or plot twist comes next?
- Embrace silences and pauses. Sit with them. Resist the urge to fill every space with words. Something that I have learned as a former counselor is that one connects with people in the space between words. People can feel your sincere understanding, and they will zone out if they feel like you would steamroll them in a 1:1 conversation. No one wants to be “talked at.” Make it a conversation.
- As always, make eye-contact. Find a couple of people in different parts of the room to connect with as you talk. By doing this, you are looking around the room, but still in strategic areas. Plus you make a few people feel special.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to BE BOLD. Shake it up. Laugh a little. The rewards can be huge.