It’s Not About You

One of the good things about an election year campaign (or, in the case of the U.S., an election two-year campaign), and perhaps the ONLY good thing about the endless coverage of candidates, is that we all get the chance to see a lot of people making speeches. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, watching others present is a great way to learn what works on stage (and what doesn’t). For the remainder of this year (2019) and most of the next (2020), you’ll have ample opportunity (if you can stand it ☺) to observe different speakers in action.

Recently, presidential hopeful Kamala Harris was approached after a campaign speech by a group of star-struck teenaged girls, one of whom said to her, “You’re such a good public speaker. How are you so good?” The rest of the interchange went like this:

Harris: I can tell you. So when you’re standing up to speak, remember that it’s not about you.

Teenage girl: OK.

Harris: OK, think of it like–have you learned about the Titanic?

Girl: Yeah, but I’ve never actually watched it. I really want to watch it.

(Everyone is giggling.)

Harris: No, listen, listen! If you were on the Titanic, right, and you’re on the Titanic and you know the ship is about to sink—and you’re the only one who knows, are you going to worry about how you look and how you sound?

Girl: No.

Harris: No, because the thing that’s most important is that everyone knows what you know because they need to know what you know. You see what I’m saying? So when you give your speech, you know something that you have to share with people, that they need to know.

[You can watch the video on Facebook here: ]

No matter what you think about her politics, as a public speaker, Harris is absolutely right that the best way to persuade an audience (and overcome your own stage fright) is to focus all your attention on the folks who have come to hear you and tell them what they need to know.

So instead of fretting about yourself as you prepare to speak (Do you look all right? Are you dressed suitably for the occasion? Are you sure there’s no toilet paper dragging off the end of your shoe and no taco sauce on your tie? Did you comb your hair? Then forget about yourself! YOU LOOK FINE!), run through this mind rehearsal checklist:

  • Who will attend the presentation? What kind of people will you be speaking to? (Are they, for example, salespeople, middle-managers, accountants, ex-cons, senior citizens?) Are they a homogeneous group, or are they a “mixed” audience? What concerns will they have?
  • Why will they attend? Because they’ve been told to, or because they want to? (The answer to this question will determine how much motivation your audience will need.)
  • What will they already know about your subject? Will they be totally unaware or completely misinformed? Will you have to “begin at the beginning?” Or will they already have a basic understanding and therefore need only further clarification? In other words, at what level of awareness are they?
  • What “language” will the audience understand? Will they understand the language of computers? Or finance? Or management? Or engineering? If they do not speak the language, what translations will you have to make for them? (If your talk is about computers, can you assume that your audience will know what you mean when you tell them how to do a “cold re-boot?” Will you have to say “get the computer up and running again” instead?)
  • What will they want to learn from your presentation? All good speakers establish clear objectives for their presentation. But it’s also important to consider what your audience’s objectives might be. If their objective is different from yours, you have a problem to solve before the presentation. How will they respond to your objective? Will they be friendly and open-minded? Or will they be resistant and skeptical, perhaps even hostile? (Wouldn’t you rather know this before the actual presentation?)
  • What does your audience know about you? Do you already have credibility with them? Or will you have to establish credibility in the first few moments? Will the audience perceive you as “friend” or “foe”? (The answer to this will determine your opening comments.)

“Do your homework,” is still the best advice for a stage-fright-prone speaker. Learn all you can about THEM, and the rest will all fall into place. Or you could also run for public office, and then you’ll have lots of opportunities to polish your presentation skills!

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