I didn’t realize how bright the lights would be. I was sitting on stage, in a room of 500 or so people, but when I looked out at the crowd, all I saw were those blinding white lights. It was 2008, and I was the moderator of a packed session in a ballroom at South By Southwest. I was about to make my public speaking debut at a social media event. Actually at the Super Bowl of social media events.
And I was 120 seconds away from almost having a panic attack.
I began the session by introducing the 3 panelists. I got through the first introduction fine, but when I went to introduce the second panelist, I looked at the wrong set of notes, and lost my place. And this is when time literally slowed down for me. I scanned feverishly for the second panelist’s bio for what felt like 5 years.
I suddenly became incredibly aware of the fact that I wasn’t saying anything. Then I realized that since I wasn’t saying anything that the audience had to know that something was very wrong.
I was 120 seconds into my public speaking debut at a social media event, and I am suddenly considering getting up and walking (who am I kidding, RUNNING) out of that ballroom.
Fast forward 5 years. Earlier this month I spoke in Nashville, presenting Think Like a Rock Star to a crowd of about 150 people. No panel this time, just me. When I finished, a few dozen people came up and one gentleman told me ‘That was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen’. Then another attendee told me ‘I’ve been coming to these events for 8 years, that was easily one of the Top 5 presentations I’ve seen here.’
What changed in the course of 5 years? You have to admit, going from almost running off the stage at SXSW to having multiple attendees telling you that your presentation is one of the best they have ever seen is a pretty big transformation. Here’s a few of the things I have learned over the last five years and I think these tips will be especially helpful to you if you are also an introvert that wants to become a better public speaker:
Put the spotlight on your ideas, not yourself.
A couple of years ago I was talking to John Moore about speaking. Like me, John is an introvert, but he’s also an incredibly good public speaker. He told me that ‘some people speak to put the spotlight on themselves, others speak to put the spotlight on their ideas’. This speaks to the heart of why I think many introverts hate public speaking, because we hate the idea of being in the spotlight. But when we think of speaking as being a way to make our ideas the star and give them the spotlight, then I think speaking becomes more interesting. Or at least less stressful!
By transferring the focus to your ideas, as an introvert we also transfer the spotlight. We don’t talk about ourselves, we talk about our ideas, and in doing so, that means we can brag on our ideas in a way we would never feel comfortable doing if we were talking about ourselves! The goal then becomes helping the audience realize and understand why they should embrace and value this idea in the same way that I do.
Your idea is a gift to the audience.
Think about how you use social media. If you’re like me, you spend a good deal of time sharing links to articles you have read and enjoyed. Why do we do this? Because we love finding and sharing valuable content with others. It makes us feel good to pass along an article or blog post that we know will help someone else.
Your presentations are the same way. There’s a core idea that embodies your presentation that’s going to help your audience. One of the thrills I get from presenting Think Like a Rock Star is that every time I do, there’s that moment. The moment when I make eye contact with an audience member and their eyes suddenly get big, they smile and immediately start quickly making notes. The ‘A-Ha!’ moment! That moment when you can almost see a light bulb go off over their heads that they suddenly ‘get’ why your idea is so powerful and valuable to them.
I *love* that, because at that moment I know I just gave them a gift. The gift of knowledge. And they will then go take that gift and it will help them improve their business, organization, fund-raising, whatever. I know at that moment that I helped them, and that’s an amazing feeling.
If your ideas are interesting, then YOU are interesting!
Four years ago I began giving the presentation that would later become Think Like a Rock Star, which would later become the book of the same name. As soon as I began giving that presentation I noticed something: I became a ‘better’ speaker. Before then, audiences were generally pleased with my speaking, I got my fair share of compliments afterward from attendees, and had decent turnouts for my sessions.
In 2009 at Social South, I presented What Rock Stars Can Teach You About Kicking Ass With Social Media. I honestly wasn’t sure how the audience would react to it as the topic was a bit different from anything else I had ever talked about. As I started the presentation, the room was completely full, people were standing up and lining the outer wall, and there were a few dozen people sitting on the floor at the back of the room! Afterwards, the attendees just gushed about the presentation, and said it was amazing.
The next year, I spoke at an event tailored to the apartment industry and presented Think Like a Rock Star for the first time. It was a two-day event and I sat in session after session of topics finely tuned to the apartment industry, with case studies about that industry. I was getting VERY worried because my topic was so different. On the second day before my session I sat in on another social media speaker. He was brilliant, and gave an incredible talk on email marketing. And 20 people showed up. I was officially getting worried, and afraid that no one would show up to my session, which was next.
Instead, my session was delayed getting started because we had to bring in dozens of extra chairs to accommodate everyone that wanted to attend. I’ll never forget the image of the event organizer literally sprinting in and out of the ballroom with extra chairs! And the audience loved the presentation, and afterward I again heard glowing reviews.
Later that afternoon I was walking down one of the halls and a woman literally stopped me and said ‘I saw your Think Like a Rock Star presentation this morning. THAT should have been the keynote!’
‘Absolutely. I would have paid the entire conference fee just to see it!’
Now here’s the thing: I *knew* that I hadn’t suddenly become an amazing speaker overnight. The only thing that had changed was the content I was talking about. But then I realized that the way I was presenting Think Like a Rock Star was different. I realized that when I talked about Think Like a Rock Star, I put the spotlight on my ideas! And those ideas resonated with the audience, so the presentation resonated with them as well.
Which means in their mind, I suddenly became an excellent speaker.
People love stories.
Businesses love case studies, but people love stories. I had always tried to incorporate case studies into my presentations before Think Like a Rock Star, because nothing makes your point better than showing the audience how a similar business implemented the ideas you are promoting, and saw success from their efforts.
But with Think Like a Rock Star, instead I told the stories of how rock stars connected with and embraced their fans. I walked the audience through how and why rock stars sought a close relationship with their fans, and what led them to that point. The case studies became stories, which made the presentation more interesting. Note too that this is another way to take the focus (along with the stress of the spotlight) off you as the introverted speaker, and place the spotlight on your ideas.
So what happened at SXSW in 2008?
At the opening I mentioned how my public speaking career got off to such a rocky start five years ago. Despite horribly botching the introductions , I didn’t run off the stage. I somehow collected myself, found my place in my notes, and finished the introductions. From that point the rest of the session went very smoothly. But I still felt horrible about screwing up the opening.
Afterward, I immediately apologized to the first panelist I saw.
“I’m so sorry for screwing up the introductions, I feel terrible about it!”
He looked at me as if I had just accused him of being the wrong gender. “What are you talking about?”
“You mean you didn’t notice my pregnant pause before I introduced you?”
Lesson learned. 99% of your mistakes when speaking will go completely unnoticed by the audience. Or your fellow panelists. The audience doesn’t realize when you lose your train of thought or forget what comes next. For an introvert, this might be the most reassuring speaking lesson of all!
So if you are an introvert, please don’t dismiss the idea of speaking publicly. It truly is an amazing experience and if you focus on how you can put the spotlight on your ideas instead of yourself, I think you’l find that the process itself becomes much more enjoyable. If you need more technical tips, I’ve also written The Introvert’s Guide to Speaking. By following the advice in that post and this one, I’ve gone from being terrified of public speaking, to actually LOVING speaking to an audience. It’s also led me to being one of the more in-demand speakers on social media and fan engagement.
And speaking of being in-demand, this is probably a good time to announce that I will be keynoting The Social Media Tourism Symposium in Huntsville on November 6th. I’m really looking forward to this event and I will also be doing a book signing for Think Like a Rock Star and will be in town for the entire event.
If you would like to discuss having me speak at your event and do a book signing, please email me to check availability. I’d love to help you make your event more successful! If you know someone that needs a speaker for their event, please pass this along to them!