Trial by Fire? No need. There are more pleasant ways to get great at Public Speaking (& other skills)

No matter what skill you want to learn, no matter what fears or concerns or hesitation you may have, there are and will always be a wide range of approaches, to learning that skill.  It's important to keep that in mind when making learning choices.  Today's note is a personal note from me (Jonathan) to you, about trials-by-fire vs. better approaches! 

Today, I'm a trainer, consultant and coach, primarily.  I don't think of myself as primarily a speaker or presenter, though I certainly speak both in public and at corporate events.  I view myself as a behavioral change agent who uses communication and structured experiences, to enable learning, among groups sized from one to thousands.

Perhaps because of an outrageous trial by fire at the age of 14, nothing really scares me about public speaking.

Yes, with new events, new challenges or logistical questions arise, but I don't have a fear response either to approaching such events, or to stepping onto the platform, or to actually being on stage and speaking.  Or even to getting briefly stuck and having to find my way again.   It might surprise you that my comfort with all those things cannot be attributed to NLP, though I certainly would have wished for an NLP solution when I was younger, if I'd known it was available!

My first big public speaking experience, was with about 8,000 people.  I didn't have to be seen by the audience, I had about 20 seconds prior knowledge that I would be speaking, while massively amplified (& voice-delayed).  I didn't even have to choose what to say.  Before that, my experience had been limited to giving speeches in school classes, performing in plays, and reading my heavily practiced Torah portion at my Bar Mitzvah at 13.  These were useful experiences, but not grand or large-scale, until...

I was working a Summer job at a concert series.

I worked in New York City at an annual concert series, known at different times as either the "Miller Time Music Festival" or the "Dr. Pepper Music Festival."  Each Summer, I'd have to work at ~30 concerts.  Each event night, there would be one major band along with a popular opening act.  Most of these concerts were held at Pier 84, right next to the USS Intrepid museum.   At the age of 14, I managed a group of five other teenagers, and all of us sold concert programs (magazines) to the entire audience.  We were called hawkers, and would walk around the venue, and climb throughout the seating stands, each carrying stacks of programs wherever we went.

As the manager, one of the interesting benefits involved backstage access as desired or needed, because that's where the extra stock of concert magazines were stored.  Yes, as a teenager, I met lots of, and occasionally got to chat more in-depth with famous musicians and bands (ask me in person sometime).

One early evening, after the audience of concert-goers had arrived, about 45 minutes before the opening act was scheduled to take the stage, the stage manager ran past me while I was counting out a few replacement stacks of concert programs for my hawkers.  He almost knocked me over before stopping, then he looked at me strangely, and said:

"You.  You have a good voice.  Come with me."

That was all he'd said.  No further explanation at the time. Then he grabbed my t-shirt sleeve, and started pulling me.  We went around a corner, up a few stairs, around another corner, then another.  Then, finally, just as we approached the corner of the stage, I caught a glimpse of 8,000 people through the scaffolding.  Before I could feel my spleen rising up towards my throat, he pulled me into a white wooden booth with a huge audio board, and a microphone, and positioned me in front of the mic.  

I could no longer see the audience, and they couldn't see me.  But they were about to hear me.

He simply handed me a pre-printed white index card, and said, "Read this."

Then he reached in front of me, and switched the mic from Off to On, so that 8,000 people could hear me.

I had no time to panic.  No real time to evaluate my emotional response, or wind it up further.  The circumstance unraveled too quickly for me to become aware of feeling anything.  And it's not as though I wasn't actually feeling my nerves, adrenaline, fear, excitement, curiosity, and more -- all at the same time.  I was.  I definitely felt all that, in retrospect.  But he didn't give me enough time to evaluate it, or allow it to control me.

So, I went ahead, took a deep breath, and read the first sentence out loud with enthusiasm:  "Welcome to the Dr. Pepper Music Festival!" And initially, I heard nothing, real time.  As I was finishing the sentence, I thought, "something must have gone wrong."  And then, long after I expected it to, and thanks to ~5-meter-tall stacks of speakers, and many kilowatts of power behind them, I was almost knocked backwards, as I heard my booming deep voice roll out through the audience.  Then the subsequent applause and audience noise completely overwhelmed me.  And it didn't matter that none of it was meant for me personally -- it was all a form of positive feedback for a set of massively powerful lessons all learned within seconds:

  1. I had a voice (that at least some) people would enjoy listening to.  Your voice has value.
  2. I was not going to be able to speak at my normal rate, or words would blend together too closely and sound like mud.  So I was going to have to enunciate, and speak more slowly than I would normally, and stretch vowels out.
  3. After hearing the duration of the electronic delay, I was not going to be able to wait between clauses or sentences, to hear the end of what I'd just finished saying, before continuing on.  That would be waiting too long.  To speak well with electronic delays, I was going to have to temporarily block out the external feedback of the timing of whats being said, and choose pacing and pauses based on what's said, real-time, not what my ears were hearing externally more than a full second later.

Those valuable lessons were almost instantly integrated, thanks to the intensity of the experience.  

I then read off the rest of the printed announcements on the index card, smoothly through to the finish.

The stage manager then shushed me, reached over to turn the mic off, and said to me...

"That wasn't bad.  You'll be doing this from now on..."

" make yourself available about an hour before showtime from here on."

So how did I accidentally get picked for that opportunity?  A backstage equipment handler who normally did the announcements had quit that day, and word hadn't gotten around sufficiently.  The stage manager found out about the handler's having quit, five minutes before the announcements needed to be read.  So in a panic, he grabbed the first guy he found, who had a reasonably nice voice.  And it worked, so I was expected to continue doing it.

So all in all, including all the years I managed the program hawkers, I probably read the announcements there at a total of ~120 concerts.  Maybe more.

Great "Trial-By-Fire", right?  Powerful Learning, right?  Well, it got better (or worse!):

A year passed.  I had gotten used to doing the pre-show announcements in the booth.  It was still very cool to look out at the audience while approaching the booth, but no longer a nervous experience to speak on a live mic, inside the control booth.  Then, one night near the end of that season, I was visible backstage when I needed to be called up, and I headed up to the booth as usual.  But the booth door was closed, and that wasn't expected.  The stage manager handed me the card for the night, pointed through the back corner of the stage at the mic at the front of the stage, and sounding 100% like an impatient manager, said:  "Do it from up there tonight.  Smile, wave after the welcome bit, then finish the rest.  And remember to turn the mic both ON first and OFF afterwards.  Go."

I thought I'd gotten used to the applause after the greeting.  But I clearly wasn't prepared for hearing the applause when I was speaking from center stage on a live mic, while watching the audience and being watched real-time.  Doing the announcements from the front of the stage, while looking at 8,000 people making more noise than my own voice was making through two enormous stacks of speakers, was truly life-changing.  No, it didn't cause me to feel any need to become a concert musician (though I am a guitarist & more, and do enjoy music).  But I knew that if I could get comfortable with this, as I'd already become fully comfortable with making the announcements through the booth microphone, then there was no point in being afraid of doing other things with a  crowd that large, and especially with an even smaller group.  Other challenges just seem smaller.

Over the four Summers when I gave those pre-show announcements, I had to do them from the stage microphone a total of just three times, because for whatever reason, the booth microphone had failed and they didn't have another handy.  During that first experience at center stage, I was feeling overwhelmed by the experience, but comfortable with the vocal delivery (because that was a skill I'd honed already).  I was still nervous during the second such opportunity, and overwhelmed by it afterwards.  And then the third time was almost easy and I felt just great afterwards.

Fortunately, you don't need Trials By Fire!

If you have a fear of speaking in front of an audience, that fear can take many forms.  Once you unpack and explore the specific mechanism behind how you 'do' your fear, then NLP can help you rewire around that, and through certain interventions or training or experiences, you can actually have fun while building in resources that help you free yourself of those old concerns, without ever having to face your old fear or panic anymore.  I know because I've helped so many before you, and I've always been successful doing so.

Sometimes fear can be interrupted through "pattern interrrupts," leaving you feeling neutral or inspired, instead of fearful.  Sometimes you can replace negative emotional responses with positive emotional responses (anchoring).  Sometimes you can change your inner voice, or your inner visualizations, that are leading to old fear responses, and get completely different results.  Sometimes you can choose completely different desired outcomes for speaking, which changes your own expectations, and completely frees you up to become extraordinary.  Everyone is different.  I encourage you to consult with someone who understands alternative approaches to learning, who is good at behavioral and emotional modeling so that the coaching they do with you will be accurate and targeted, and who knows (truly knows) how easy it is to achieve comfort with the larger-than-life.

I certainly wish I'd known NLP at the age of 14!  I would still have gotten the same result, but faster.  I believe it would have helped me to have less of a shocked response during and after the first experience, and significantly sped up the rate at which I became comfortable with each new experience, either in the booth or on the stage.

I invite you to apply this story to any circumstance in your life, where you have been thinking about stepping things up to another level beyond where you currently find yourself.  Why fear it?  And then put yourself in my shoes.  Pretend you'd been given the opportunity at some early age, to become good at, and comfortable with, something even further beyond the level you want to reach currently.  Then imagine looking ahead to the situation you're currently facing, and knowing it's going to be difficult or impossible for such situations to seem insurmountable, by comparison.

And then when you find yourself making your future leap seem, sound, or feel incredibly easy... send me an email to let me know this blog post helped you do it!

How can I help you further?

If you want to develop your spoken voice so that you'll likely start actually getting compliments, not to mention people will make a stronger effort to hear more of what you have to say, I encourage you to consider my "Finding Your Irresistible Voice CDs or MP3s.  Check them out and explore how they can add measurable value to your life.

If you'd like to become a more compelling speaker, and you either want to get over your fear of public speaking, or dramatically improve how you package and communicate your message, for greater impact, join me at one of my next 5-day "Speaking Ingeniously" courses, which I limit to 15 people maximum per occasion, to guarantee a lot of personal attention and coaching, daily.  You'll be thanking yourself years into the future for having done so -- and I make it my business to ensure it!