Now the dust has settled on her IABC World Conference presentation in Washington DC, it's time to share the backstage experience.
Speaking at this year’s IABC World Conference in Washington was a genuine honour. The warmth and generosity of the IABC crowd is legendary – and deservedly so. Everyone involved – members, volunteers and its small, dedicated team of employees – shares a spirit of camaraderie and passion for what they do that is infectious.
As a speaker, I have never been so well supported, advised and briefed. This was for the benefit of the 1,000 attendees as much as my fellow presenters. The result was a smooth, connected and emotionally involving event, which I’m sure has resonated with delegates long after they returned home.
I am told I do not look nervous before taking to the stage, which proves appearances really can be deceptive. An hour before speaking in Washington, I was so anxious I thought my legs would give way. I attempted to keep my nerves at bay by rehearsing obsessively. The night before when all was quiet, I crept down to the room I had been allocated and gave my presentation to rows of empty chairs. Taking in the dimensions and acoustics of the space helped me decide the basics – where to stand, walk and how far I would need to project my voice. Crucially, it helped me practise making eye contact with my potential audience. My system is to divide every room into five and give equal attention to each fifth of the audience throughout a presentation.
The mantra that runs on a loop in my head is ‘one thought, one breath’ – a technique borrowed from acting. This makes each sentence deliberate and distinct. It has the effect of regulating my breathing, calming my nerves and curbing any tendency to gabble. And it encourages me to pause – to allow a thought to settle with the audience.
Public speaking may seem like a one-way communication exercise. It is the exact opposite. The audience is never passive. There is a collective current of energy that surges across the room. This energy is palpable to the speaker. We feed off its positive vibrations and can be easily crippled by the opposite.
I make the experience harder for myself because I speak without notes or traditional slides. PowerPoint is wrongly named – it weakens whatever point you are trying to make.
Bullet points do not convey emotion.
Audiences mostly remember how my presentations made them feel. So I tell stories supplemented with a few pictures. At Washington I told stories about my childhood crush on Lois Lane, my conversations with a hostage negotiator and working with a mentalist.
The delegates who spoke to me afterwards were recounting one of my tales, not a carefully researched statistic. That is not to say we speakers shouldn’t layout a logical, robust, fact-based argument. Indeed, I am critical of speakers who string together a series of humorous stories that ultimately lead nowhere. I want to heckle “So what?”
All this is not to say I consider myself an expert public speaker. After more than 20 years at it, I am still learning. I needed a large glass of wine in my hand before watching the film of myself speaking at Washington. I am my own worst critic. Did I really say, sound and look like that? Once over the initial shock of becoming a member of my own audience, I always learn from the experience – to smile more, slow down further and above all, to appreciate the privilege and opportunity of being given a stage.