Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The cure for a fear of public speaking - 250 little old ladies

I am moderating a panel tonight at our Savvy Geek Chix Event. We'll be discussing strategies for keeping your job, and what to do when you are job hunting. I used to be petrified of public speaking. It would take all my nerve to get everyone at the dinner table in college to clink their glasses so that I could stand up and make a one minute announcement about the next day's flag football game (yes I was team captain). I could lead meetings and group discussions. But put me in front of an audience and I would tense up. I remember rehearsing my thesis presentation (which was presented to basically all the senior science majors and faculty in a large auditorium), and my best friend pointing out to me that I was systematically tugging at my dress skirt. I refrained during the presentation and basically was doing fine during the regular presentation until someone sneezed in the audience. They tell me I jumped about a mile in the air, turned and screamed god bless you, then smiled and went back to presenting. I remember none of it.

Somehow I avoided large auditoriums and audiences for the next 5 years, except for one very memorable presentation to the New York State Telephone Association. My boss told me that it appeared I took one deep breath and read the speech without ever pausing or breathing until I finished. I don't remember it.

Then my boss Bill Hammond, one of my favorite people in the world, decided that part of my objectives was public relations events. I was Regional Marketing Manager for the State of Pennsylvania and based at Enterprise Telephone Company. And so he sent me to do a presentation on understanding your telephone bill to the Sunshine Senior Group in New Holland PA (the name of the group has been changed due to my inability to remember names). He told me how could I be afraid of 15 little old ladies and assured me I'd do fine. I walked in and instead of 15 ladies at a table I was confronted by an enormous room packed full. I quickly counted - 25 tables, each with 10 seats. 250 little old ladies. I was doomed. I had, yes it was the old days, transparencies and my projector which I carefully set up as I was scrutinized closely. I easily topped each of these women by a foot and I think I was the only one in the room who was not wearing a Mennonite cap on my head. To top it off I had an extremely curly perm in those days and my hair was naturally very blond. I was in my very favorite teal suit and pumps - the very picture of the 80's business woman confronting little ladies that had all been farmers wives during the depression -not necessarily my constituency.

I was terrified. I'm not sure what I was afraid of more - fainting or somehow having all these women attack me for my lack of a cap.

I was introduced and got up and began my talk - careful to avoid eye contact. I could hear people in the back talking and I was completely unsure what to do so I just talked faster. I suddenly realized that one of the little tiny ladies in the front row had stood up and was tugging on my jacket. All I could think is "this is it, she's going to throw me out",even though I could have easily picked her up with one hand. I stopped and looked at her. She held out her hand for my microphone. I gave it to her. She turned to the audience and into the microphone she said, "This little girl came all the way from the phone company to tell us about phone bills. And I for one want to hear it. So all you chatterboxes in the back," she paused, "SHUT UP". She turned back to me, handed me the microphone, patted my cheek and said- "You go ahead honey."

Well I just had to laugh. And the audience laughed with me. With that I turned back to the audience and said - I have just a couple of slides but I'm going to forget about them and let me just answer your questions. With that my 15 minute talk turned into an hour long Q&A. The ladies were great and I actually was able to use my slides when answering their questions. It was great.

I'll never forget that little woman. She taught me that an audience won't be in the room unless they want to hear what you are saying. And yes, over the years I've had people walk out on talks - but I don't take offense anymore. And I love it when people raise their hands and ask questions - I prefer my talks to be interactive. So I'm not nervous about tonight. Well not too much. I may give my skirt just a couple of tugs as we get started.

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