Soft-Skills: Nurturing the Public Speaking Gremlin

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti. He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready. To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin'. What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud. He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out. He's chokin', how, everybody's jokin' now. The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

Lose Yourself, 2002

If I had to pick a single song that described the feelings I would get when asked to do anything related to public speaking, Eminem's magnum opus 'Lose Yourself' would fit the bill perfectly.

A year ago I could not imagine anything worse. And though something as simple as speaking up in a meeting or reeling off a few points in a presentation may seem completely trivial to most people, for me it was a trying ordeal that would push my anxiety riddled mind to shut down and would feel as monumental as engaging in a rap-battle on the 8 mile.

But how is it possible that a person like me; outgoing, chatty and fearless in other aspects of my personal and professional life, can be so debilitated by such a simple task? Honestly, I never really gave it much thought, until...

An Opportunity Arises

If you think about it, not being able to speak publicly is a pretty big gap to have in your professional repertoire. You might be the rock star programmer equivalent to a member from Iron Maiden, but if you don't have the ability to effectively describe and showcase what you can do, none of that matters. I mean, it's like having a fancy car with no show room and no sales people to sell it.

Being fairly new to Black Pepper, and to the software industry in general, one of the first things I realised was - there are meetings. And lots of them. Between the stand ups, retrospectives, planning meetings and demos, I was constantly finding myself feeling uncomfortable and ineffective at communicating. I had two choices, either face my fears and find a way of conquering them or find a nice spot to hide my 6ft 1 frame every time I felt uncomfortable. Sadly the latter failed as there weren't too many good hiding spots in the building.

One of the perks of joining Black Pepper are the training days that you are allocated. By default everyone has 5 to use a year, and as a graduate you are supplemented a further 15 to use within a 2 year window. This was great, but surely those kind of training days are best used for becoming a functional wizard or a master of machine learning right?

Wrong. How wrong I was, and pleasantly so. After speaking in my one to one about it, I started to look at things differently. I had gone many years believing that the ability to speak publicly in an effective and engaging manner was a prepackaged cognitive ability - you either have it, or you don't. But the truth is, it is just a much overlooked soft skill that can be up-skilled. With the training days to burn, I booked myself onto a 2 day workshop in London with Vince Stevenson, a man who was also referred to as 'The Fear Doctor'.

Meeting the Doc

I honestly believed that I would be the only person attending, or wanting to attend for that matter. However, I was joined by my colleague Rhys, and there we found ourselves, in a room with 10 other people, all wanting to see how we could improve ourselves with the help of The Fear Doctor.

The first thing I noticed was the different professions that were represented there - a bar owner, a genealogist, a finance director, a senior accountant, a civil servant and of course two software consultants. This, combined with reasons why people were there - to do better presentations, to give a great best mans speech, to have more of presence in meetings, to make a relaxed first TV appearance; reaffirmed with me that whatever the reason, effective communication is such an important skill to have, it is central to so many things, and the fact that Black Pepper embraced this reflected that coming here was definitely the right move, but what did we learn?

Class In Session

To become a great guitarist, one has to practise guitar more, to become a great writer, one has to write more, to become a great public speaker one has to... what have I got myself into?

It is a proven fact, one of the best ways to get over a phobia is to expose yourself to it. To re-train your mind to fend off the hyper-arousal that the autonomic nervous system goes through to respond to a potentially threatening stimulus. What did that translate to in this workshop? Lots of public speaking, with cameras, an audience and an analysis after each speech. This proved to be an extremely useful tool, but what I found more interesting was some of the theory behind public speaking.

It's all a Matter of Perspective

After doing a couple of jittery speeches, I was almost certainly convinced that the fear on my face was palpable throughout. But what I got back from the audience was entirely different. Nobody actually realised how nervous I was, in fact most said that I projected myself very confidently. I saw the same thing happen when somebody else stepped up to talk, it was then in a moment of clarity that I realised - there is a clear separation between how the audience perceives the talker, how the talker perceives the audience, and how the talker perceives themselves.

Now the burning question, after all this - did I become a more effective communicator, have I channeled my inner Jordan Belfort and at some point delivered an absolute humdinger of a speech outside of the workshop?

Yes and No. I'll tell you what it did and didn't do. The workshop did not start a revolution in my mind and transform me into some TDD/Agile motivational evangelist with overflowing confidence and the ability to answer near blind siding questions at a whim. But what it did do was make the correct small changes to make me understand and finally grasp what I was doing.

When I speak in a meeting or even during stand up, or any other situation where I must project myself in a public setting (however briefly or extended period of time), I remind myself of the fact that my perception of my performance is not the same as the audiences perception. The recorded videos (oh the cringe) from the workshop showed a clear progression, proof was in the pudding. Maintaining a level of honesty, clarity and logic, and actually thinking through the process of the speech makes it like any other attempt at a skill. You do it, if you do badly, you improve, if you do it well, you are satisfied. The only way is up!

Outside software land I also managed to give an absolute belter of a best mans speech, something that I never would have been able to do before. I am now living proof of the fact that public speaking, like any other skill, can be improved upon and turned into a strength rather than a weakness.

Final Thoughts

It's actually kind of crazy when you think about it, from the moment we enter education, we are taught a plethora of subjects, hard skills to take out and apply to the real world. We are given support and facilities to keep practising and keep improving. Yet when it comes to nurturing soft skills that are perhaps even more integral in entering the real world, they are just expected to exist.

Imagine if you were sat at a desk and asked to do a physics test, but had not really had the support or resources to prepare for it properly? You'd probably complain, at the very least some questions would have to be asked as to why you weren't properly prepared in the first place by the institution testing you.

Or lets take it to the work place, if you were to start on an Angular project but had so-so experience on it, most of the time, most people would try to brush up their skills, or use any training time that the company offers to refresh their memories and become more confident in that language.

Unfortunately the same is not true for the times you have to give a presentation, do a lengthy demo or enter a large planning meeting. This is probably due to the fact that the people who can do it, just do it, and don't think about it. Where as people who struggle with this area usually want to get it done quickly and move on. This means that nobody speaks about it, and as a result it stays so under the radar that most companies don't think about actively improving it.

Everyone should have the chance to improve their capabilities as a public speaker. I am quite fortunate to work at a company that supports this way of thinking. After all, to become a proficient software consultant, being able to churn out lines of code will only get you part of the way there. You must be able to clearly and confidently communicate your work, your plans and your intentions. The human element needs to be embraced, and in turn soft skills must be recognised as just an important an attribute to have in the professional environment. Let's nurture these skills and make public speaking less of a fear, and more of a set of tools waiting to be discovered.

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