If I can do it, anyone can.

Commandment #10: Do not covet
August 16, 2012
Are you setting your team up for failure?
April 29, 2013

 

If I can do it, anyone can.

Are you a natural born speaker?

Do you think there is such a thing?

Surely, we’ve all seen great speakers. They make the art of presenting seem effortless. They’re engaging, interesting and easy to understand and follow. They may appear to be what you call that “natural born speaker.”

But there’s no such thing. No one  is born a good speaker. [message type=”simple”]Good speakers are not born. They’re built.[/message]

I hope that gives you hope. If you have aspirations to improve your skills, then good for you! You can make a dramatic improvement in your presentation skills, because indeed good speakers are not born, they’re built. No matter what types of presentations you make, you can make them better. No matter where you are in the continuum of talent, whether you are a newbie or a pro, you can get better. No matter what audiences have said about you in the past, you can make a deeper impression and you can change them for the better. Maybe speaking is a part of your job. Maybe you are stepping into a new phase of life where making presentations is a big part of your responsibilities. Maybe you just want to give a decent toast at your cousin’s wedding, without vomiting or causing the guests to run screaming from the room, or hearing their collective groans and they wail in dreadful boredom.

You can get better. I’m living proof.

Picture this: I’m in my office at the NASA Lewis Research center in the mid 1990’s, where I was the manager of a jet engine research test facility. It’s a simple, unadorned and unsophisticated government office.  I’m sitting at my desk, leaning back on my squeaky antiquated government-green swivel chair, looking wistfully up to the ceiling and wearing a huge grin.

“I nailed it! Wow. That was great!” I thought to myself.

I had just given a presentation to a conference room filled with the top brass of NASA’s upper management. I had prepared for it for days. My slides were informative. My information was accurate. My outfit was awesome. (Yes, I REALLY did think that!) It was a crucial stake-in-the-ground presentation, one that had a lot riding on it. I was certain that I had knocked it out of the park and I felt great.

Then my boss, John Schaefer, blew in with his usual brisk authoritative style, and planted himself squarely in front of my desk. He had been in the meeting where I made this great presentation. I admired John greatly. He was a visionary, a great leader and a lot of fun.  But now, his face was serious and I suspected that he was about to give me bad news. I sat up, alarmed.

“Maureen,” He paused, as if searching for the right words. “Maureen. You are a really bad speaker.”

Arrrrgggg!!!!

He was right. I was bad.  My skills were bad. My confidence was bad. My effectiveness was especially bad. In fact, I had been a bad speaker for years.

In 1983, I came to  NASA where I spent almost 14 years as a researcher and manager, directing the test activities in a jet engine research facility called The Propulsion Systems Laboratory (PSL). I loved my job. When I was chosen as the Facility Manager of PSL, it was a great day for me, and a memorable day in the annals of NASA. I was not only the first woman to have that job, I was the youngest Facility Manager, beating out other candidates who had much more seniority.

As part of my job, I made regular presentations to all kinds of groups with all kinds of information, in all kinds of venues. I gave budget updates to my bosses, project updates to customers, tours to VIP’s, pep talks to the crew. I made project pitches to the top brass at NASA, maintenance updates to contractors, monthly status reviews to my peers and presented technical research results to the outside world of other engineers. I gave management talks, technical talks, motivational talks and public relation talks. I spoke to inspire, inform, petition, defend, solicit, explain, educate, debate, motivate and celebrate. I spoke in conference rooms, convention centers, auditoriums, manufacturing facilities, airplane hangars, picnic shelters, control rooms, hotel ballrooms, and even on a tour bus. I talked a lot.

And I was terrible! Really terrible. If you can recall any time you’ve had to suffer through listening to a bad speaker, then you know what I mean. I was that bad speaker. My boss John was right. I needed help.

Fast forward more than 10 years, to August 2009. Picture this: I’m standing on a stage in a convention center in Connecticut, speaking to a lively audience of 2000 people. I’m in the top ten out of 30,000 contestants, competing for the title of the World Champion of Public Speaking!

I didn’t win the contest, but I didn’t make a fool of myself either. In fact, I held my own against the best speakers in the world, and I tied for 4th place. (OK, so they only announced the top 3 winners. That means that the other 6 of us all tied for 4th place. But let’s not get caught up on the details…) In just a few short years, I went from being really bad to, well, not so bad! A lot changed, didn’t it?

How did it happen? It wasn’t an accident, or a miracle or a random event. It was a series of steps, beginning with one wise decision: I joined Toastmasters, a worldwide organization that teaches leadership and communication skills, and that started the process. My journey to become a better communicator which ultimately led to the finals of  World Championships in 2009 was magical and memorable, but it was methodical. I did it with passion and purpose. I learned from the people who went before me, the other World Champions of Public Speaking. While preparing for the contest, I scoured the web for training resources. I read books on speech preparation and delivery techniques. I joined online communities and message boards. I became a serious and dedicated student of public speaking. Along the way, I was transformed as a speaker and as a person.

The lessons I learned on my journey are lesson you can learn for your journey, no matter where you are in your quest to improve. You may not want to become the World Champion of Public speaking. You may or may not be a seasoned and polished speaker. You may or may not make regular presentations, speeches or sales pitches. Maybe you just want to be a better conversationalist. Whatever your goal, whatever your circumstances, you can get better.

If I could get better, anyone can. Great speakers are not born. They are built. Anyone can do it. Even an engineer.

Once you decide to do the work to improve your skills, you can see immediate improvements. And It is work, that is certain! But it’s work that will pay huge dividends. It’s hard, it’s frustrating and it’s time consuming. But wow, the payoff is huge.

Are you ready? What can you do today to take that step to improve your skills? Read a book on public speaking? Sign up for my Turbo Tips? (See the link on my site here.) Join Toastmasters? Whatever you decide to do, just do it. You’ll be glad you did.

 

Maureen Zappala
Maureen Zappala
Maureen is the founder of High Altitude Strategies. She’s an ex-NASA propulsion engineer, turned professional speaker and author. She’s a semi-regular contributor to the monthly Toastmaster magazine. And paradoxically, is co-writing a book about Ohio State Football history, (despite being a graduate of U of Notre Dame). Go Bucks. Go Irish. Go figure.

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