In this series, I will share a few tips on safely getting started sharing your story.
Part Four of this series looks at the professional role of a speaker and the speaker’s mindset.
I talk a lot. So much so that it’s become my career.
Yes, some may view me as the curiously “courageous,” sometimes misunderstood, and occasionally envied public speaker. Hoorah. In all honesty, my eight-year journey into speaking was more of a tumble. In all honesty, I fell in, ill-prepared and woefully uneducated on what to expect.
Over the years, as my career has started to grow, people commonly ask me how they can pursue sharing their personal stories or delving into the profession. This question comes up so often that I thought it was time to give some pointers to interested people. Therefore, this is a series of suggestions for those interested in pursuing this path.
Part 4: The Speaking Professional
The first three parts of this series looked at trauma-informed speaking, networking, and content creation. Part four focuses on the role of being a professional public speaker.
A few days ago, I was at a speaking event and was the last speaker of the day. I showed up two hours early (during the audience’s lunch break so I wouldn’t disturb the class by entering early). I sat in the only available space, which happened to be in the front of the room. It’s typical for me to show up one to two hours early to an event (I will detail why in a bit). There was one session scheduled before mine, and because I was so early, I would be present the entire session.
As the lunch hour ended, not all of the attendees returned on time (which is typical for an all-day or several-day long course). So the session instructor, a mental health professional by trade, decided to allow for an additional 10 minutes to wait on everyone to return from lunch. Granted, we’re talking about three people being late out of a room of 25 – 30.
When the instructor finally begins, after the ten-minute mark, it becomes clear their slide deck was far too long for their session slot. On multiple occasions, they skip over slides and state, “we won’t do this for time.” At least 15 slides have been ignored by the time they are nearing the end of their session.
15 minutes to the end of their session, they look to me (as they know I am the next speaker) and say, “do you mind if I take some of your time?” Eek. Talk about putting someone on the spot. I turn to refer to the class and state, “it’s not my time, it’s theirs, but go ahead.” The instructor proceeds to speak a little over ten minutes into my time to make up for their late start.
This pushes me back close to 20 minutes because I have to set up my equipment and allow the attendees a quick break before I begin. It also forces me to the edge of holding them over their expected end time, which is a big no-no for an all-day lecture event.
I’m not sure of the last time I spoke so quickly in public, but I’m pretty sure I set some record. And don’t worry, I had them out of there 10 minutes early, despite my speaking sprint.
What issues do you see in this situation? How would you handle it? Is there anything that could have been done differently?
It’s important to note that many people speak publicly for a variety of reasons and events. Not all the people who speak in public are professional speakers. That is correct; not all of these people hold the same professional standards for speaking as they might in their own professional roles. The realm of public speaking can be difficult to traverse due in part to the number of varying interactions you might encounter.
You see, there are expected standards in many professional realms. Let’s look at a therapist for a second; you expect them to be on time and begin their session promptly. You hope they will have your information correct and have the knowledge base required for their role. Additional standards are necessary due to licensing and education, but the basic ones for clients are pretty black and white.
As a speaker, there are some universal standards that most people are aware of too. Similar to the therapist, you should be on time to speak. You should have the correct information, and it would also help to have the knowledge for the role the person is representing. Pretty basic stuff.
However, if we look at time, we see there can be a nuance to the meaning of starting on time. In the story I shared, the speaker chose to put a few of the audience members’ needs first by waiting on them to begin. This choice to begin late held consequences for the rest of the session and into the next session. It also impacted another professional’s time. Tricky situations like this one will present because of the flexible nature of public speaking.
BREAKING IT DOWN
I’m gonna simplify this situation so we can break it down.
A mental health professional was asked to speak to a group. They put together a slide deck containing the information they wished to share. They were early arriving for their session, then decided to start late based on their attendees being late. They skipped a significant portion of their content for time while speaking. During their two-hour session, they put another professional and the next session speaker on the spot by asking in front of the group to go over their slated time. They also failed to give their attendees a break during the two-hour session. When they finished after having gone into the next session, they packed up and left.
Let’s take a look at this scenario with a professional lens now.
TIME IS NOT ON YOUR SIDE
Time was taken to develop content but was not taken to ensure the content would meet time constraints. This is evident in a few ways:
- There were more slides and content present than the instructor could share.
- The instructor did not offer the attendees a break during the two hours.
- They utilized all of their time without allowing for any questions at the end.
There’s a developer concept called dogfooding. Dogfooding essentially means eating what you make. In other words, test out your content before you walk into the room. But, of course, when you’re testing your content, one of the critical things you are doing is ensuring you will meet your timeframe.
Time is your number one foe in the realm of public speaking. If your presentation is too short, you better have some backup content, jokes, or exceptional talent to fill that space. Especially if you are being paid are a speaker in a day-long event. If you’re being paid and end too quickly, you may have failed to execute your contract. If you’re in a lineup, you may have a room full of people waiting around for their next session. Neither are ideal situations.
Had the instructor gone through their content, they could have easily trimmed out redundant slides. I counted five slides that were the exact same (to have the audience remember an acronym/key point). This redundancy cost them unnecessary time and lost vital points from their unused content. Walkthrough your presentation, watch your time. This is important, especially at the beginning of building your process.
At this point, I no longer need a complete run-through of content to gauge my time. Instead, I have a process that includes being aware of timeframes. Don’t get me wrong, there are still occasions where I may run a few minutes behind or veer close to running over (a big no-no). Still, I have focused on my time management skills over the years to know when I need to pivot to a different engagement practice with my audience.
ONE VERSUS THE MANY
As an instructor, trainer, or public speaker, if you decide to start a session late, that decision should rest on you alone. Don’t expect to go over your timeframe because you are sacrificing the next speaker’s time and every attendee. Attendees will be late. They will leave and not return. They will do what attendees do. There are some ways to manage timeliness, but this is part of it in the end. If you are scheduled to speak after a lunch break, ask the event host to remind the attendees to return on time. If you can, be early enough to arrive before a lunch break so you can ensure this is done.
If you decide to start your session late, have an area of content you know you can trim or even lose. The key is to know that your decision to lose time should most impact you. Your attendees aren’t going to care that you waited for three people, and that’s why you ran over. The 24 who were in the room will wonder why their time wasn’t as valuable. You have to be willing to make that call.
Putting another speaker on the spot can be a form of burning bridges. By asking my permission to use my time, the instructor essentially tried to shift the time-management (or lack thereof) to be my problem. I could have easily said yes and left it at that. In fact, that would have been the “nicer” thing for me to do. Instead, I chose to speak to the room and let everyone know it wasn’t my time because that was the truth. By asking me, the instructor failed to recognize my professional standards, failed to validate the attendees, and failed to take ownership of their decision. None of these things was the best way to handle the situation.
Again, by trimming their content and managing their time better, they could have easily overcome this issue without pulling anyone else into it. The problem is that the instructor failed to recognize their professional realm. As a mental health professional, they did not have a speaker’s mindset when they walked in the door. This was evident in their actions and in their content and delivery. Not everyone is a professional speaker, and not everyone will want to be but having a speaking mindset would elevate the way you are perceived when presenting.
You’ve put me in a bind by putting another professional on the spot. I can only let you have some of my time, or I’ll be seen as an ass by everyone in the room. Not the best way to win an audience over. It is expected to build up your colleagues and respect their roles in every professional realm. Public speaking is no different. If you make a public decision, stay the course and own the decision. If you can pull someone aside during a break and speak privately, that may further develop a professional relationship. You never know what that relationship could mean down the road.
Finally, always allow time for a Q&A session. It ensures your audience can ask anything they may be wondering. It allows for a more casual engagement opportunity. And it’s a great networking space. So do yourself a favor and build that time into your session.
*Manage your time from the moment you create your content to the second you stop speaking.
*Never use more time than you are allotted if it will impact another professional’s session.
*If you decide in front of the group, stick with it and own it.
*Know when to allow a few individuals to outweigh the needs of the many.
*Don’t put another professional in a bind. Speak to them privately, or choose another option.
*Always include a Q&A session.
Whether you want to be a public speaker or just speak, it’s important to remember that you’re in the realm of professionals. Hopefully, this story is one you can learn from and further develop a few key skills to ensure you are a leading professional, no matter where you’re going.
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Stay Tuned for Part 5 Listen, It’s Not About You
You can learn more about safely crafting and sharing your story in my book: The Art of Safe Storytelling.