Talks, events, conferences. We live in a golden era for public speaking. I’m convinced this is a very recent thing. I can remember a time when the only speakers you ever only came across were trying to sell you things. Hitler was a great public speaker.
But now it’s everywhere, preaching as mainstream communication, pitching what-you-reckon a totally normal, yet totally weird thing to do. It never occurred to me to try it until a few years ago when someone trusted me to have a go at their event. I really enjoyed it and have spoken at dozens of events since, including many of my own. I still don’t know why other people do it – but I’m starting to see why people should do it. I’ve realised the people who need to speak most are the ones who want to least. Here’s why:
- It promotes your status. When you go to hear interesting people speak, you are aware that those speakers were ‘chosen’. They have an automatic air of authority that all but the absolute worst performance up there can’t completely destroy. A speaker – any speaker – is someone to be listened to.
- It’s a buzz. It’s a good feeling, telling people something that you believe to be true, sharing an idea; teaching, generally. The persuasion is fun, the drawing strangers into one’s world is fun, the nerves are exciting, the feedback is rewarding.
- You’re giving them what they want. It’s a complicit con, and you are pulling it. Fundamentally, the audience is there because they want to feel the primal response that kicks in when someone steps up and takes crowd in hand. You’re up there giving them the rain dance they paid for, and no one will resent you for that.
- It’s interesting. It’s a distinct and unusual way of interacting with humans, and it’s an ongoing learning experience. Each room is different; some people will be nodding and smiling (look at those people most), some will have their arms folded and their feet on the chair in front. Crowds as a whole behave interestingly – you can learn from the way they respond to you, and to each other. Great performers really talk to the audience, poor speakers turn inwards. You can’t replicate that anywhere else.
- It’s better than writing. Writing’s great, it means you never have to talk to anyone, look a stranger in the eye, think on the spot, get the wrong word, risk misinterpretation, have to explain yourself in a way you’re not comfortable with, or otherwise deal with anything too unpredictable or human, while you build your beautiful stories or arguments. Writing is power in the digital world. It is self-sufficient and precious. Speaking, on the other hand, is gestural, robust and exposing – which is why many writers are uncomfortable with it. Written words build scaffolds of arguments and ingenious ideas, but speaking them directly into someone’s face is the best way to fill them out into practical ideas, get the fastest feedback you’ll ever get, and find out how silly you’re being.
- It gives you a voice. I’m afraid it’s still true that a woman in a mixed group is often doing well if she manages to finish a sentence without people talking over her, guessing what she’s going to say, or simply not listening. This has been my experience time and time again which is perhaps how I end up doing so much writing. But speaking is better than writing, remember? If you can’t say what you have to say in “real life”, say it to 400 people. They won’t interrupt you. Most will listen. You will not believe the sense of relief at finally getting your point made.
- It helps get your thoughts straight. Perhaps due to the above, you never quite get to finish thinking deeply about something. If you want to understand how you feel about something and be forced to think honestly and rationally about it, write it up in a way that means you can tell it to a crowd of strangers. In my experience, if you believe what you’re saying, the only nerves left are the fun ones.
- It’s unapologetic. It’s still a sell. Some will buy, some will disdain. But because of the automatic atmosphere of respect for speakers at events, you will not be expected to apologise or back down. You’ll find out what you believe in and you will find people who’ll stand by you on it. Speaking gives a powerful injection of confidence into your ideas and abilities, and a fearlessness too, because you’ll realise that it simply doesn’t matter if others don’t agree.
What are you waiting for? Get up there.