As speakers we are told to be passionate about our topic, while that’s great advice, it’s simply not enough. Do you remember the famous restaurant scene in When Harry met Sally, where Meg Ryan feigns a passionate moment? Well, a good speaker can feign passion too but … they can not feign honesty. There are always tell tale signs that the audience will pick up if you are not speaking from your heart.
Now I’m not talking about spilling your guts out to them, as if it they were your therapist. What I am saying is if something has just happened in your life, good or bad – use it. The purpose is to connect with the audience and let them see your human side, as opposed to your Stepford wife speech.
Case in point. My main keynote speech is called, Dare to do it! In fact, I will be presenting it this August in Reno at the Toastmasters convention. Before I give every speech I take personal inventory. I ask myself if I am living the principals I am about to tell others to live. If not, I make sure I get myself in check before I give that speech. The last thing I want is some undercover agent tailing me finding out I’m a couch potato while touting the benefits of adventure.
A few years ago I was the closing speaker at an annual Girl Scout convention. As always I was trying to juggle everything; speaking engagements, weekend stand up gigs, working on my fourth book, being a single mom, driving my mom to work, working out at the gym, and paying attention to my fiancée. It was a tight schedule but I thought I was handling it okay. Perception however, is not always reality, at least not to those around you.
I own a two-family house with my mom and when I’m out of town, my mom watches my son. As I was headed out the door to do my ninth consecutive speech my mom appeared surprised. “Where are you going?”
“To do the closing speech at Nassau Coliseum.”
“I don’t remember you mentioning that to me.” She said.
“I told you about it a week ago. You don’t remember?”
“I know you work hard, but you don’t seem to have much time for your family these days. Spencer misses having a day with you.”
That remark stung. My mom is the most supportive mom in the world. It had to take a lot for her to say that. I had no time to get into a conversation with her about it, which added to my frustration. The remark gnawed at me the entire drive to the convention. There I was about to go onstage and tell everyone how to balance their lives and do all the things their hearts desire, and my son was missing quality time with his mom. Following your dreams should make live better, not sever the relationship with loved ones.
Even though I knew I could pull off my speech, act professional and pretend everything was okay, I’d feel like a phony. I just can’t ask people to do, what I am not living myself.
Luckily, I had arrived forty-five minutes early. I sat in the parking lot and thought about what to do. I was scheduled to speak for an hour, if I added another half-hour for signing books, and another hour to get home I’d be home by 11:30 the latest. It was a Friday night so there was no school the next day. I remembered that Spencer and I had passed a local twenty-four hour indoor tennis court the previous day. Spencer mentioned he would love to play in one of those tennis bubbles at night.
I called Spencer at home and asked him if he was tired. He said “no”. I told him I would call him back in two minutes. I called information and got the number to the Alley Pond Park tennis court. I asked if they had a 1 a.m. court available, they said “yes.” I booked the court. I called Spencer back and told him. He was thrilled.
With the problem solved I went into the speech with a clear head. Now, the reality is no one in my audience ever had to know what went on before I went onstage. But I knew. I also knew that there were times in people’s lives when they too had the balance ball out of whack. This could serve as a good lesson on how to handle a problem immediately as it comes up.
I opened up my speech by telling the audience what my mom had socked me with, how my good old catholic guilt kicked in, and how I knew I had to solve the problem before I spoke to them. I spoke from my gut. Heads were bobbing up in down in total understanding. I got a standing ovation that night.
Flash forward two years. A woman who had seen me speak at the Girl Scouts convention was attending another speech of mine. She came up to me and said, “Played any midnight tennis lately?” I laughed. She told me that she had never forgotten my speech because she saw that I was not afraid to share myself openly with the audience. I thanked her and laughed. “Hey, how could I lie to a bunch of Girl Scouts? It would be bad karma, one day I’d be minding my own business munching on a Girl Scout cookie and the god of merit badges would come down and choke me.”
She laughed, “Well, I just want you to know I brought a bunch of my friends to see you speak. I told them you were the real deal.” I was touched.
Since then I’ve opened up to my audiences several times, either when life stuff just happens or when I’ve been put on the spot. Like the time in Colorado when I was asked to do a two-minute impromptu plug for my breakout session later in the day, along with all the other speakers. Apparently the other speakers knew to have a prepared spiel, unfortunately I didn’t get that little notice in my mailbox.
So I went up to the audience cold. In my best New York accent I said. “Wow, I had no clue we were going to have to do a two minute infomercial. But luckily I happen to be the Guinness Book of World Records fastest talking female, so doing things in two minutes is my specialty. Actually I could give you the whole hour lecture in two minutes, but then I’d have nothing to say later. I’m also stand up comic, and I do crazy adventures, like walking on hot coals, scuba diving with sharks. Now if you want to learn how to apply these principles of fear nothing to everyday life and get a few laughs in the process, drag the chairs from the other rooms and meet me down the hallway at one o’clock or whatever time my session starts. Check the brochure.” To my surprise they did and at the end I got another ovation. Of course I looked around to see if my mom was paying them off.
Now, do I always get a standing ovation? Of, course not. Although please feel free to give me one at Toastmasters if you like. ? The point is, when I just do my speech on automatic pilot but with passion, the audience enjoys it but it doesn’t have that element of pure honesty.
Whenever you speak look at something that happened to you recently, or while at the convention, or even in the bathroom of the convention. Did it make you laugh? Did it make you think? Did it change your perspective? Did it anger you, and you weren’t sure why? If so, find a way incorporate it in your speech. Chances are if you reacted to something so did others. Actors and comics call it being in the moment. As a speaker this is a scary thing to do, but the rewards are worth it. Let your audience know you have the same fears, wants and desires and this is how you got through them.
Just like people like to buy from salespeople they like, people like to listen to people they can relate too. If you are willing to put what makes you human on the line…you will score a home run a good percentage of the time. And if you don’t, you always have another good story to tell at your next engagement.