Public Speaking and Digging Ditches

Public Speaking and Digging Ditches
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I used to be so scared of public speaking that, before going on stage, I would literally look around for somewhere to throw up. Needless to say, my friends learned to encourage me whilst staying safely out of the blast zone.

Then I ended up starting an organization in Nepal that rescues and reunites trafficked children in Nepal. If I didn't inspire people, we weren't going to be able to save any of these kids. Suddenly public speaking became something I couldn't really avoid.

To inspire people, you need, first and foremost, the power to communicate well. You have to learn to speak publicly. If you can't do that, you need to be able to write, or to design something (whether that is through art, photography, or some other form).

My road to great public speaking began three years ago, when I met a man named Ford Koles.

Ford is a towering fellow, well over six feet with finely coiffed red hair, like what Conan O'Brien would look like if he was the varsity quarterback.

I met Ford in early 2008, when I spent four months at the Advisory Board Company in Washington DC, before I started business school. My job was, in essence, to sell a business intelligence software to hospital executives.

I started off pretty terrible at it.

Enter Ford Koles, an Executive Director at the Advisory Board Company and a perennial keynote speaker in the healthcare industry. He sat down with the salesmen at the company -- folks like me -- to give us notes.

"Okay, imagine I'm a group of hospital executives," he said, settling into his seat across from me in a small conference room. "Do your pitch."

I started my pitch by thanking him for coming. I'd gotten through about five words when he held up his hands.

"Who are you talking to?" he asked, looking around at the empty room. "I'm right here. You sound like an opera singer. Try it again."

I tried again. This time I only got through "Thank you" before Ford cut me off. He paused, finger to his lips, thinking for a moment.

"Okay, forget that," he said. "Imagine I'm sitting across from you on a train. Thank me for coming with you."

I did, still in my presentation mindset. I stopped when I saw his expression.

"Conor, forget the role play thing for a second," he said, waving his hands as if this whole thing was silly. "I'm going to have to go in a second here. Just thank me for coming here to work with you today."

I was almost relieved to hear it -- I felt so ridiculous. In a normal voice, I thanked him. He pointed at me.

"Yes. That's what you do," he said, smiling. "Don't perform. People see through performances. I could tell the instant you opened your mouth that you'd prepared this. You speak like, everybody will be cringing. They'll be waiting for you to forget your lines. You see what I'm saying?"

"Yeah... I think so."

"People want to have a conversation. They don't want a lecture. Let the microphone take care of the volume. You just have a conversation with them. Like we're doing right now."

I did as he said, and I did get a bit better. But I still wasn't making sales. Ford met up with me again, same little conference room. This time, I got a full minute into my pitch before he stopped me.

"You're nervous," he said.

"Yeah, well, I get a bit nervous when I speak," I said. Didn't everybody?

"How often do you practice?"

I shrugged. "Quite a lot, actually."

He shook his head. "No, I mean, how often? For a twenty minute presentation, how long would you practice?"

I thought about it. "Maybe an hour?"

"Not enough," he said. "I'm pretty good at public speaking. I do it a lot. And I have one secret. You want to hear it?"

I did.

"I practice. I practice like crazy -- alone, with others, whatever I can do. And you know when I know I've practiced enough?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"I look out the window, at that park down there, and I ask myself, would I literally rather go outside and dig ditches than say this speech again?" he paused. "That's how I know I'm pretty close to being ready."

I've used those two principles in every speech I've done since. I make it conversational. To be conversational, you need to be relaxed. The only way to make it relaxed is if you're not afraid of screwing up - my constant fear when I'm speaking in public.

So how do you ensure you won't screw up? You practice. Again, and again. Or dig ditches. Your call.

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