Interview with Lisa Braithwaite

Part 2

Welcome back everyone! We're continuing our interview with Lisa Braithwaite on public speaking.

Q. What's the biggest flop you've ever had?

A. I've been lucky not to have any really bad flops. I've had those situations where I didn't practice enough and ran out of time. And there were many times during my work in domestic violence or in gender equity that I got some hostile audience members. But I was usually able to salvage those. I've had a really good time at the majority of my speaking engagements. But...

I took a speaking engagement once that, from the moment I accepted it, did not feel right.

The time between getting a commitment from the organizer to the date of the presentation was too short. I also cut short a business trip so I could fit it in.

After surveying the participants, I decided on a different course of action than usual. Instead of tweaking my traditional public speaking presentation for the group, I created an almost entirely new presentation. In a too-short time frame, with a trip in the middle, while having house guests and undergoing bathroom renovations. I was still working on the timing in my hotel room the day before the presentation, which was a bad sign.

I was scheduled to speak at the end of a full day of training, into a tight time slot. When I arrived, early, they were already a half hour behind schedule and exhausted. I didn't have an opportunity to meet or talk to anyone before I started as I usually do. And did I mention that this was a Sunday?

As I began my presentation, I noticed several people in the hot and stuffy room struggling to stay awake.

At the end, there was no time for questions, although I offered to stay and talk with people individually. But they were all in such a rush to get home, that they pretty much all grabbed their stuff and left.

The presentation was just okay, in my opinion. The evaluations were positive overall, but could have been lots better.

There are things I should have done differently. And there are things the organizers should have done differently. But the bottom line is this: I never should have accepted the engagement.

Q. The biggest success?

A. I've had many successful presentations over the years; probably 99% of them I've been pleased with. I'm happy with the ones where I feel the audience is right there with me the whole time. I'm happy with the ones that get me invited back. I'm happy with the ones where audience members approach me afterward with their appreciation and personal stories. I'm especially happy when I get business after a presentation, although sometimes it might take two years!

I can't say any one presentation stands out, although there was the half-day training I pulled off in February while my 20-year-old kitty was dying, that was really a feat of magic. We took her to the vet in the morning because she was having trouble breathing, and neither my husband nor I could be at home with her. By the time I was done with the training, she was gone. Her health had been declining rapidly, and I feared this might be her last day. And it killed me not to be with her in her last moments. But I had to compartmentalized that part of my life in order to get the job done. The training was one of my strongest, and I'm still amazed I could pull it off.

Q. What did you learn from those experiences?

A. I've learned that it's never okay to slack on preparation... NEVER. I've learned that it's crucial to be myself, and not try to fit into someone else's mold. I've learned that passion and enthusiasm go a long way toward getting the crowd on my side. I've learned that the audience comes first and my job is to give value and useful tools... it's not about me, how clever I am, how I dress, or how I talk. What's going on in my personal life is irrelevant. It's all about them.

I've learned to make presentations interactive, build trusting relationships with audiences, answer uncomfortable questions comfortably, use humor to defuse difficult situations, adjust to different venues and spaces, give a great presentation when I wasn't feeling 100%, trust my gut, and much, much more!

Q. If it's ok to ask, what was the very first speech you ever gave? How did it go?

A. I don't remember the first speech I ever gave, but probably close was the debate in fifth grade about which was more damaging, fire or water. Of course, I took the side of water, as I enjoyed playing devil's advocate, and most 10-year-olds would go with fire. After that debate, my teacher said I should be a lawyer. I was also on the speech team in high school, and one of my favorite speeches for tournaments was about the benefits of brown-bagging -- my attempt at humor. I can't remember ever not enjoying public speaking.

Q.What are some of the most important things you've learned since then?

A. Speech tournaments and debates are very different from real life. What I know now is that a presentation should be a two-way conversation with the audience, and what they care about is all that matters. Speaking for a panel of judges is nothing like going into a board room and explaining why 20 people need to be laid off, or trying to convince a roomful of fishermen that they need to employ conservation measures in their practices, or giving a webinar to a bunch of people you can't see to try to get them to buy your product.

The audience wants to know "What's in it for me?" and "Why should I sit here for an hour and listen to you when I have a pile of work on my desk and 50 calls to return?" Speech tournaments are about following arcane rules and doing everything "right." That's just not the real world.

Q. You do a lot of speech coaching and public speaking training. How can coaching help a person?

A. Coaching and training are the mainstay of my business. I love helping people build their skills and confidence as speakers. Public speaking coaching allows a person to get impartial feedback on their content and delivery, instead of relying on feedback that may be too polite, too judgmental, or just plain unskilled. A speaking coach can help a person develop their ideas from scratch or restructure existing material, seeing it with a fresh eye. A coach also pushes clients past their comfort zone and acts as a support and guide while they try scary new things.

Q. In your September 13th blog post you posed the question, "Why be just okay when you can be great?" Once one has reached that 'okay' level, how can they go on and continue to improve? What specific actions can one take to keep learning and getting better?

A. To go from "okay" to "great" takes a lot of incremental steps. The more experience a speaker gets, the more she learns the ins and outs of audiences, venues, writing, humor, practice, storytelling, openings and closings, visuals, structure, movement, voice, negotiating, and all the things that go into a successful presentation.

One of the best things a speaker can do is videotape or audio record herself. This is the best way to see how you are presenting yourself to an audience. Also, a speaker needs to keep speaking! A speaker needs new audiences and new experiences in order to keep learning. No two audiences or venues are alike, and each time you speak, you add to your encyclopedia of knowledge.

Q. Is there anything else that you would like to say, in particular to speakers just starting out?

A. For speakers just starting out, I suggest finding as many opportunities as you can to speak. If they don't already exist, make them. Find ways to speak at school, at work, at church, at volunteer organizations. Just get out there and do it.

Get feedback from people you trust and respect, but also be willing to throw out the advice that doesn't work for you or fit who you are.

Be yourself and don't strive to be the next Tony Robbins. He's the only Tony Robbins and you're the only you. Capitalize on that. Embrace what makes you unique and special and carry it proudly.

Most important: Everyone gets nervous. EVERYONE. Don't get hung up on it. Learn techniques to manage it, like relaxation and breathing. And good preparation! And then let the nervousness energize you, the way it would if you were going to ride a rollercoaster or do something else scary and fun at the same time. Nervousness is okay. Nervousness is normal. It means you care and you want to do well, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you can get over your fear of being nervous, and just allow it to come and go and roll off of you, you will make huge strides as a speaker.


Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your experiences and your advice. Check out her blog for more public speaking thoughts and ideas.

Lisa Braithwaite is a public speaking coach, professional presenter, and editor of the blog Speak Schmeak. Check it out for some good public speaking reading.

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