Be A Better Speaker: Go Commando

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I’ve never been to a toastmaster’s meeting, never had media training, never studied speaking and, as a lawyer, I used to get so anxious before speaking, I’d often shake violently and toss my cookies.

But, over the last few years, things seem to gotten better…

I still get nervous, but I’ve become more at peace with my ability to engage an audience. And, the thing is much of this change has been the result not of formalized public speaking, but of teaching yoga.

When you step into a room full of people to teach a yoga class, there is a complex dynamic, especially when you teach in New York City, where time is the most precious asset. Your students have carved 90 minutes out of their day to be with you and, though yoga is not supposed to be about judgment or expectations…there IS an expectation that this time will be WORTH it.

From the teaching side, that expectation manifests itself in the form of a sense of responsibility to give your students what they’ve come looking for.

And, it’s not just information, it’s something far more visceral…

It’s community, it’s peace, it’s energy, it’s movement and breath, it’s attention and compassion, it’s precision and safety, it’s the ability to have someone enter your room in one physical, emotional and spiritual state…and leave in another.

And, that’s a huge challenge. But, teaching something so physical and personal taught me so much about public speaking, on any topic and in any setting.

One of the biggest lessons was the important of observing and adapting on the fly…

There were times when I’d teach and it felt like the room was a symphony, packed with vibrant, bodies, minds and spirits moving as one. Those moments were magical. And, they happened fairly often. But, other times, I’d show up with a game plan and, minutes into the experience, it became clear what I was looking to share was not jiving with what my audience wanted receive. And, 10 minutes into a 90 minute class, you can’t just stop and start over with a different theme.

When that happens, you have two choices:

  • Stick to your script, deliver what you prepared and have everyone leave unsatisfied, or
  • Go off script, get real, spend more of your energy trying to suss out what people want and need…then go commando, create on the fly, improvise and give it to them

The ability to do this is often the difference between trainwreck and triumph…

But, it’s not easy to pull of. Two things need to be in place.

Observe – Pay attention to your audience. You need to speak not “to” them, but “with” them. You need to watch how their faces and bodies respond to what you are saying. Sometimes it’s easy. Other times, it takes a lot more work. Over time, with practice, it becomes habit.

Point is, the more you can make the jump from presentation to conversation, the better you can suss out responsiveness, the better armed you’ll be to you’ll be to give the room what it needs. So, get out of your own head and focus outward on your audience.

Start with a single person. Watch their body language and facial expressions. Observe how they respond to your critical points, humor, movement style. Then move onto to another, then another. And, the more you practice reading people, the better you get at it and the better armed you become to respond when things aren’t going right and keep going when they are.

Some people are naturally good at this. If you’re not, it can be learned. A great resource is a book called, What Every Body Is Saying by former FBI people speed reader, Joe Navarro.

Go Commando – So, what if your observation tells you you’re missing the mark? Here’s something to explore…Abandon the script.

Just the sound of that phrase terrifies most people. Off script?! Away from the planned, standard, tested, vetted bullet points, answers and slides I’ve prepared? No way! If the script is working and people are vibing with it, go ahead and roll with it.

But, if you’re bombing sticking to the script, why not at least give yourself the chance to recover, get back on track and give your audience what they need, rather than what you planned to deliver?

Sure, you still may bomb going off script, freestyling, improvising, but you also just might create magic. Because going of script forces you to be more real, more authentic, to expose yourself and your humanity. And, that’s something that people respond to on a level that often far surpasses whatever words and images tumble out of your mouth. But, there’s a big caveat.

If you decide to go off script, know what you’re talking about…

If you’ve just memorized a bunch of lines and don’t have a genuinely deep knowledge and passion for what you’re sharing, then you likely won’t have the knowledge base or authentic energy and desire to pull of going off script.

But, if you do have the internal database, passion and desire, give it a try, switch to a related topic, try another option, make it more interactive, bail on your slides, turn up the lights and walk out into the audience.

Turn it into a dynamic, living, breathing conversation…then see what unfolds.

So, what do you think? How else have you handled this?

What other tips, strategies and tactics can you share?

What’d I miss?

Let’s discuss…

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24 responses

24 responses to “Be A Better Speaker: Go Commando”

  1. It took me so many years of teaching and speaking to learn to do this. I used to hold on to what i wanted to say so tightly. It was learning to be right where I am, which can be terrifying in front of hundreds or even thousands of people, being very present and responding to that moment – rather than “Do they like me?” or “Is it working?” that made the leap for me.

    I still freak out and don’t do it sometimes.

    So it makes sense you would learn to do this teaching yoga in that hot box of a city you reside in!

  2. Joe Jacobi says:

    I’m seeing a cool and recurring theme in my reading this morning – changing up the “norm” is a good thing. Duct Tape Marketing and Lewis Howes on Linked In both allude to this in posts today and going commando on a presentation conjures up the same spirit.

    To that end, how you free yourself up to read an audience is so critical when you stand up in front of a room full of people. Nothing brings this on like going off script. For me “knowing your stuff” when you go off script means telling great, engaging, fun, and personal stories.

    By the way, think about the most memorable speaking moments you remember as part of an audience. Was it different? Was it unexpected? Was it off-script? About 10 years ago, I attended an Olympians dinner in DC. Huge event – emceed by Bob Costas and attended by people the likes of Janet Reno. (The)Brandi Chastain was asked to say a few words. She got on stage and became REALLY nervous. She started looking around the room and said, “Guys, I need help.” In seconds, she was surrounded by the best womens athletes in the world, visually showing us the kind of support, camaraderie, and friendship that is associated with progress in womens sports. She simply said, “This is what it’s all about.” Great moment. Nearly 10 years later.

  3. Just read a relevant blog about engaging audiences at the best part was saying you should use a great opening line. He gave an example of “do these pants make me look bald” – sooo funny!

  4. Another beautiful post that is spot on! As a trainer/facilitator I became truly good at my kraft when I was able to do just as you’ve mentioned. What to add? Practice…lots of practice. It does get easier with practice.

  5. […] Be A Better Speaker: Go CommandoUpshot: Abandon the script whenever necessary. [Awake at the Wheel] […]

  6. […] Be A Better Speaker: Go CommandoUpshot: Abandon the script whenever necessary. [Awake at the Wheel] […]

  7. My tendency is to do this rather too often. In order to respond to student needs I go off script at the drop of a hat, and sometimes it means that information that HAS to be given does not get given. Fortunately I can remind my students that they are meant to have read the text anyway, and the info that I give off-script is still related to the end goal of the classes. However, I do wish that it were easier to go with the flow and still fill the intended reservoir… so to speak.

  8. […] Be A Better Speaker: Go CommandoUpshot: Abandon the script whenever necessary. [Awake at the Wheel] […]

  9. I have to do this all the time with my English students. They’re all adults who come to class after a long day of work. I start every class with a set plan, but I almost never follow it because I want to keep everyone engaged and enjoying learning (even if the grammar can be frustrating at times).

    That requires going off script, talking about how irritating English can be, jumping up and down to illustrate the meaning of a word, stopping the whole class and my favourite part, going off on wild tangents to share with them my love of the language and how culture shapes language and vice versa.

  10. […] Be A Better Speaker: Go CommandoUpshot: Abandon the script whenever necessary. [Awake at the Wheel] […]

  11. You’ve reminded me to check into restarting my yoga class. Your first two points brought to mind another parallel – my yoga instructor had to key into multiple levels of understanding because the class was beginner to expert. So that’s another reason flexibility and observation is important in all presentations – appealing to novices without boring the experts.

  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Alex – you nailed it with those two words…engagement and passion. Information is the easy part.

  13. I have to say taking Toastmasters was one of the best experiences of my life. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

  14. I think your most important point lies in the fact that you can learn how people are responding to you by body language. Some people will say that speaking in public is hard because you don’t have feedback. You actually have a wealth of feedback through body language and facial expressions. This is why phone interviews are terrible. You have NO feedback whatsoever. In an in-person interview, you will know before you walk out of the room what kind of impression you made, if you were paying at least a little bit of attention to facial expressions. And you had the chance to change your course of speech based on that feedback. The real question is were you brave enough to do it?

  15. It IS hard to toss the script if you’re married to it. I’ve found that you have to be where the “listener is;” if you’re not, most often you’ve lost them. So when I’m speaking and my script isn’t working, I try something else…and sometimes that doesn’t work and I try yet another way. Being interactive and getting the audience involved by asking questions is a good way to get on track – their track. And a sense of humour usually comes in really handy too! For me, the bottom line is that communication is only useful if what’s being said is being received and understood.

  16. […] and Jonathan Fields, one of my favorite writers, will liven this one up when he recommends that we Go Commando at Awake at the […]

  17. Somestimes it is good to go commando and then engage by getting some comments and develop on those comments or get the commentators to develop on those comments.

    You can then go back to the script and know that others will want to join in at a later time. So, it may be possible to go off script again.

    Participants like it when they are engaged.

  18. […] Fields has some adivice for you if you want to be a better speaker – go commando! What does that mean? It meand improvising, creating on the fly and coming up with a very real […]

  19. Bo says:

    I think Katrina has it right. Practice. As a professional classical musician, this is a big question. When you’re performing something that the audience has been listening to for hundreds of years (live and recorded which adds to the lofty expectation), how do you make it new and fresh? Of course, each individual artist brings a whole new bag of ideas and interpretations. But to make each performance truly new to both the performer and the audience, the performer must practice the piece until he/she knows it inside out, upside down, rigt side left, hundreds of times, not just repeating, but really digging in and taking it apart. Only with that kind of preparation, can one be spontaneous and free on stage. Because you know it SO well, you can be fully in the moment and say what you need to say. You’re ready for the surprises of a live performance. The performance aspect must be practiced as well. Get a bunch of friends and have a mock concert. Take a practice session, even by yourself, and really perform through the whole piece. Make mistakes. Work on it. Then let it rip on stage. I don’t do much public speaking, but I’d imagine it’s similar. Know your material. Practice. Practice performing. Then let it go. See what happens.

  20. […] Jonathan Fields of Awake at the Wheel gives suggestions to Be a Better Speaker: Go Commando. […]

  21. Rod Newbound says:

    Thanks Jonathan, for a well written and thoughtful article about most people’s #1 fear.

    I remember well how shy I was in school. By the time I got to the 5th grade, it was so bad, my teacher kept me after class to do my oral book reports.

    When I joined the Air Force at 19, the recruiter never told me what I was putting down as a career path I wanted was jokingly referred to as a “dream sheet”. When I finished basic training, the AF decided they needed more marksmanship instructors. So that’s what they ordered me to do. I was so petrified I actually went to the doctor… who proceeded to prescribe tranquilizers.

    Four years later, I walked out of the AF a whole lot less intimidated about public speaking.

  22. Jonathan Fields says:

    Fabulous comments as always! FYI – in case ya didn’t know…public speaking is the number one phobia in the U.S. (don’t know about elsewhere).

    And, fear of death is, um, number 4!

  23. Tisha Morris says:

    Hey Jonathan,
    I had the same experience… going from attorney to yoga instructor. I was always extremely nervous in court just to continue a motion. Teaching yoga has completely ‘cured’ me of that. First, it helps being in an environment that you want to be in. And, secondly, as you said it’s a different way of speaking… it’s more intuitively following your inner guide. Not reciting stuff that you’ve memorized. I guess the point it is that it’s always easier to speak from your heart than your mind!

  24. Great post. I speak quite a bit and always try different approaches. I think the key is knowing the experience level of your audience before preparing.