I would not say I am terrified anymore, but speaking in public was always something that made me very nervous and yes, maybe at first, somewhat terrified.
It is never easy to get in front of a crowd and feel comfortable that your words and ideas will come out as you intend them to and that they will have the effect of captivating the crowd in the way that you want. After all, they say you only have one chance to make an impression and you do not, do not, do not want to make it a negative impression.
I still vividly recall speaking at my first Canadian Corporate Counsel Association conference. It was during the National Spring Conference’s Spring Training Camp many years ago. Having just started my general counsel role barely a year before and having just completed law school several years back, I was asked to speak on labour/employment law matters. I was honoured and I loved the idea, but what would I say? How would I prevent the audience from falling asleep? Ultimately, I could not pass on this opportunity and, while somewhat painful for me (and I am sure the audience), I got through it! I knew I could have done better, but I was glad to get my first conference session under my belt.
Since then, I have spoken before many dozens of panels and conferences. I still get nervous at times, and I know there are always opportunities for improvement, but I feel that every time I do it, I get that much more comfortable with it. That being said, I still learn new tips and strategies from every experience. Here are some of the tips and strategies I have learned along the way:
• You do not have to be perfect! Do it, even if it makes you nervous — get it under your belt and aim to improve (even if just by one per cent) every time you get up there.
• Know that people will not judge you or even hold mistakes or nervousness against you. Many of the faces in the audience would be equally or more nervous being up on stage and they admire you for trying to overcome these fears.
• Always, especially early on, select a topic to speak on that you are intimately knowledgeable about. This will help you feel more comfortable and, in the event of questions, you will be able to answer these easily.
• Try not to be within the first group going up to speak and attend early, to see what the setup is like. For me, this is worth its weight in gold. Is there a podium? Will you be sitting or standing? How will you sit? Even better, if you have a preparation call, ask these questions. You may also ask to have a copy of the proposed questions in advance so that you can prepare.
• While the initial instinct is to write all you want to say, line by line and word by word, this will only make you more nervous as you try to keep your place. It is also more likely to lower your tone of voice and to disengage the audience as you read your notes. If you have the questions in advance, write responses line by line and review these several times before the presentation day, but bring only point forms to remind yourself what to say. Try this, it will help!
• Try to have an icebreaker to get the crowd laughing and to let you warm up. Just make sure that the joke/comments are appropriate for the audience or it could backfire!
• It is very hard to say and to do this, but RELAX! I tend to find that when I relax, when I try to speak to the audience rather than read to it and when I loosen up and see the audience as friends that I am having a casual conversation with, rather than a judging hoard of masses, I do better. Yes, this comes with time and experience as you build your confidence, but try it!
Finally, you will have good and bad performances, but DO NOT let this discourage you. I recently had one of the most important opportunities in my life to address a wonderful and passionate crowd at the March on Bay Street event in Toronto. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak about something I am personally and professionally also very passionate about: celebrating and advancing diversity and inclusiveness within our profession and our country. Unfortunately, it was a very cold day and the speeches were outside. I had little to no time to prepare and practise my speech and the howling wind made it almost impossible to read my notes as I stood in a bench addressing the crowd of hundreds of friends and colleagues. As I stood before Toronto’s beautiful City Hall, I knew that this presentation would not be my best, but I persevered and did the best I could under the circumstances. Was I nervous? YES! Would I do it again? In an instant! Did I learn from this experience? Absolutely!
And that is, after all, what makes every single one of these opportunities so special and why, even if nervous, you cannot and should not pass on these wonderful opportunities to have your voice and your opinion heard. Just make sure you dress warm! Another lesson learned.