I did a talk on tuesday for some well deserving Occupational Therapy Graduates at their graduate conference. It is always interesting to see where my experiences and skills as a speaker will take me, and even though I have no medical knowledge, I am often asked to speak to those in the medical profession, these graduates being an example. Now, I have actually spoken for these particular group of OT's before, last year I ran a seminar for them and the way that I prepared for that seminar is completely different to the way that I prepared for the conference talk I just did. So this post is to show you an example of learning what works for you and therefore improving your presenting skills.
When I was preparing the seminar to give to the OT students last year I was very nervous and unsure about what approach to take. I knew that essentially they wanted a case study of my life (and heck, we all find it easy to talk about ourselves, don't we?), but my difficulty came in the over thinking of the approach. I felt that I wanted to come from an academic point of view, because that was my background (and in previously talking to medical students I had taken a sociological/academic approach to talking about disability). Unfortunately I forgot that my background was also myself and all of my experiences, and hence I knew everything that I needed to talk about already. So guess what? I over prepared for that first seminar. I remember sitting in front of this small group of students reading from a set talk and feeling that it wasn't working - that there was a natural rhythm missing from the whole presentation. I did what all good speakers should be able to do - I adapted. I decided to leave the set talk aside and just speak from what I know, speak from experience, speak from the heart. This opened up the seminar in a profound way. Everyone felt instantly more at ease, there was more laughter, more interest, a more lively atmosphere in the room. When I finished what I had to say I opened the floor to questions and questions pored in! A discussion was developed from my talk and the students became more invested in the entire seminar. I had found a better way of connecting; both myself and the students learnt things that day. And, I had obviously done something right as I was invited back for the students graduation conference.
So, for my conference keynote speech, I decided to go into the room as unprepared as possible. Of course this doesn't mean that I went into the room in my pajamas, with greasy hair, and unbrushed teeth - I went in there physically and mentally prepared, but speech wise, I was going to talk from the heart, as opposed to reading from a pre-prepared paper. I felt much more relaxed, could sit and enjoy the other talks knowing that I was qualified to present and that I was really wanted there. When it came time for me to talk I stood in the centre of the room (no hiding behind podiums for me!!), and I engaged like crazy. What do I mean by engaged? I mean I looked at everyone in the room during my whole talk, I gestured, nodded, and responded to the visual feedback that the students were giving me - I let them contribute to the direction my talk would take. I hit the "zone" during this talk, I was confident, strong, and open, and this was evident when it came to end of my talk and I opened the floor to questions. Again, I was flooded with questions and became engaged in a discussion about the patients perspective of the OT experience. This talk was hugely successful, and a massive improvement from my previous talk to the same students.
The feedback I had for both talks was positive and exciting - but what is most important for me is that I can see the improvement that I made, within myself, to pull off a more successful talk. This is where the example (above) teaches the lesson. Even as you are speaking to your audience, be aware of yourself, assess yourself, and adapt if need be. Then, take your talk and, as objectively as possible, take it apart and see where you could improve. Come up with new strategies to try next time and do REALLY try them (don't always stick with the same old same old). Being a speaker, I am learning, is to be flexible, organic, and adaptive - lessons I have learnt from both my disability and swimming career already, but are super amplified in the conditions that speaking to an audience creates.
I will talk a little more about my speaking jobs in upcoming posts, in the meantime, let's do an exercise - write down ten ways that you could improve your speaking experience next time and use it as a prompter for anytime you feel the nerves kick in, cause you know what? if I can improve and make changes in the way I present and be stronger for it, then so can you!