Guest lecture

Guest lecture

Monday, June 16, 2014

Beating the fear of public speaking

A couple of weeks ago I delivered my first big speech.  It was for a Dutch HR leadership crowd in Bussum, the Netherlands and it wound up being one of my best professional experiences ever.

In March I received a call from the organizer asking if I wanted to participate in the HR leadership conference.  When I asked for some more information about the program, I learned that there were no female speakers yet.  Not one.  At an HR event....

I voiced my surprise and disappointment to the guy on the phone.  "It is a reason for me NOT to attend the conference"  I told him.  A few days later someone from the event organization called me back and asked if I'd be interested in being a speaker.  Yeah well, how could I say no.  Not after faulting them for the lack of diversity in speakers.   But, more importantly, I did not want to say no.  I was scared, but I also felt honored.  They liked what I had to say, apparently. 

Now what should I talk about?  The woman from the organization would like me to "set the tone"  and "wake the audience up." Something about the digital transformation disrupting our industry and why we need our HR leaders to make a difference.

There are so many subjects that crossed my mind.  All of them I feel strongly about, like  
  • HR must learn to speak the same language as business leaders.  That is the key to impact.  
  • HR needs to be way more data driven and strategic.
  • HR has a negative reputation. Often I feel defensive when I explain what I do to non-HR people at network events.  That really bums me out.
  • HR needs to improve.  We need talented people who get it.
  • Having digital natives/Millenials/GenY/GenC, or whatever you want to call it; as customers, employees and leaders.  My favorite subject.
I asked some help from a professional.  His initial feedback was a bit confrontational.  "Everybody knows this stuff already.  You're not telling them anything new."  "What is your main message?"  "What do you want to leave your audience with?"

Well, that is a really difficult question. I really struggled with it.  One thing was clear.  I needed to talk about my journey, my own story.  About why I decided to make the switch to HR.  And where that passion has brought me today.   I knew full well that this was quite different from most talks at these types of events.  But this was my chance to dare greatly. 

So, I dared.  I wove my personal story into HR content.  I decided to stay away from powerpoint and used a prezi with just pictures to support the passion and emotion I wanted to deliver in the talk.    

On the day of the event, I was scared but also quite confident.  I had prepared well.  My husband's words kept going through my head; "No guts, no glory."   I found comfort knowing that I was going to try.  I may fail, but at least I tried.  And I was proud for pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

The host opened the event with a short speech.  After that he explained that the crowd could choose between 2 speakers; me and another guy.  The expectation was that half would stay in the room and the other half would watch me in a different room.   But, the host made my introduction sound a lot more attractive.  He said "Maja sees herself as an HR outsider.  She was a lawyer and consultant before she came to HR.  After she lived in the US for 20 years, she decided to move from New York to Heerlen."  The other guy was going to talk about implementing some system. 

So pretty much everyone got up and came to my room.  There were not even enough chairs.  More chairs were brought in which delayed my start.  The pressure was on, but I kept my cool.  I did feel very excited.  I was secretely celebrating :"They want to hear my story.  How awesome is that?" 

With a pounding heart I started.  And it felt good right away.    I could feel how the crowd was engaged in my story.  They were with me all the way up until the end.  After 25 minutes I closed with my main point "Find your purpose, find your passion.  Because it is up to us in HR to make our workplace a better place.  Not only for our digital heros, but also for our kids.  A place where everyone thrives and can be their best, as employees and as parents"

The audience applauded loudly (I thought).  I was soooo psyched.  I did it.  What an AWESOME feeling.

The immediate feedback was really great.  Different people got different things out of the talk.  Some connected with my personal story, others with the HR content.  It was good.  The talk was good.  I even got three more invitations to speak. 

This was very big.  It felt like a huge victory.  It was the ultimate proof that I had overcome my biggest fear.  A fear that had paralyzed me for years; public speaking.  I really sucked at it.   I still crinch at the thought of those experiences.  I used to be so nervous that my voice would start to tremble.  I could not control it.  I sounded like I was going to cry.   People in the audience pitied me.  I could see it in their eyes.  They felt sorry for me.  Just humiliating.

Then, 4 years ago I did a presentation training.  Just 4 years ago.  Twenty years into my career.  Better late than never, right?  And ...  I fixed it.  Just like that.  My shaky voice was gone.  And it has not come back since.  It was not even that hard.   I was so happy with the result because it opened up a new world for me.  It changed me. 

I promised myself right there and then to not hide my past failures.  Instead, I should try to inspire others.  Others that want to fix their fear of public speaking.  I am living proof that anyone can overcome it.   It is possible to learn even if you really suck at it. 

So, here's to everyone who fears talking in front of a big group:  You can learn it!  You're never too old!  It is not that hard!  You might need to get some coaching, but you can do it!      

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