Public Speaking is Not About You

We had my oldest son and his fiancée visiting over Christmas and the New Years. She is working on her graduate degree in English and is always interested in communication in the US, especially since she is from another country. 

Our family attended Christmas Eve services at our church. After the service, she remarked that she was impressed with the sermon and the communication skills of our pastor, David. Her comments began to make me think about what makes a good speaker. 

Public speaking is a huge influence on your success. We have told our kids if you can learn to communicate well through speech and in writing, research effectively, lead others, and focus your time and energy, you will accomplish great things. So, what makes me hang on all of David’s sermons when there are others who would put me to sleep? The question is worth a blog. 

David connects with his audience, where other speakers may not. One of the first things you notice is an absence of a pulpit. He will have a large screen TV for PowerPoint slides and a tall table to put his iPad and other notes on. The absence of a pulpit, apart from giving the speaker something to hide behind, is removing a barrier between the preacher and the congregation. Now, I don’t think that every speaker needs to abandon a podium, but if that is removed, it does take away a barrier between you and the audience. 

David will allow his mind to wander a bit during the sermon. Some of this may be planned. It has the effect of making the listener realize that he has a lot of similarities as David. This helps build a connection. I watched John Maxwell, who is an incredible leader and speaker, spill water down his shirt during a talk. Instead of trying to hide it, John stopped his talk and exaggerated cleaning up the mess, while making a self-deprecating comment about his clumsiness. To a person whose family often jokes about my propensity for stupid head injuries, I can relate to that easily. 

The ability to laugh at yourself in public is a skill that brings down walls between you and those you are speaking with.  Now some may think this is not very dignified; at times dignity needs to be sacrificed for connection. Anyway, realize that as my Aunt Lil told me, “You better go ahead and laugh at yourself, because everyone else already is!”

Perhaps the biggest lesson in public speaking is one that is often overlooked. Speaking is not about you!  Now let that sink in for a bit.

If speaking were all about you, why go through the potential embarrassment of talking in public at all? Why not just practice watching yourself in a mirror in the bedroom? When you speak in public, you are trying to communicate an idea to motivate the listener to take action. Yet, many speakers are only focused on the items on their outline with no concern if the audience actually understands the message. 

George Bernhard Shaw outlined this problem when he said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Have you ever been the giver or receiver of a speech where you thought actual communication was happening but only discovered later that it was not? Everyone attempts to communicate, but very few people really connect to their audience. Connecting is the real goal of communication. 

The first obstacle to real connections when you communicate is that you want to look good as a speaker. My wife attended a speaking club event last year. During the meeting, each person had to get up, stand behind a podium and speak about the chosen topic of the meeting. Each speaker was judged on the number of “ums”, repetitive words, and unintended pauses. The focus of the meeting was how good the speaker looked. 

The challenge here is the more perfect a speaker looks, the bigger the gap is between them and the audience. People are not looking for perfection, they are looking for a connection. When you speak, remember it is not about you, it is about the audience. You have to lose yourself to the people you are talking to. Try to use humor, especially laughing at yourself to put your ego in check and focus on them. People will respect you for your strength and weaknesses, but they will love you for your failures.

The next time you speak, remember this: Time you have in front of an audience is about them, not you. In the words of John Maxwell, “Connecting is all about others: Whenever people take action, they do so for their own reasons, not yours or mine.”