Small Talk

Yesterday in my “thank you speech” I said that it’s not often I’m speechless. That’s true for the young me (read me now), but it was not true for the younger me. I was a clam, didn’t open my mouth much. Particularly not in public. When writing my post yesterday I vividly remembered the first ever occasion when I had to speak in front of an audience. I dreaded public speaking.

I was still in college, where I had successfully avoided speaking in front others. I would do the research and others would present. Team work was an excellent invention of the time.  Then I was lucky to get a summer job in a hospital in Stockholm. I was in their HR department and one afternoon I learned that a colleague had fallen ill. I was asked to take over her induction speech to new staff, about 20 or so doctors, nurses, receptionists and technicians. I was terrified. Not because I didn’t know the topics, but because I’d need to stand “up there” at the podium all alone and everyone would be listening to me. So many things could go wrong.

I sat up late that night drawing my “transparencies”, some of you may remember those. They were written using colorful markers. And then I couldn’t sleep, at all. The next morning I was tired, and even more frightened. I remember the huge knot in my stomach walking up the hill towards the hospital. By that time I was sure I could not get a word out of my mouth when standing in front of everyone. But of course I did. It didn’t go very well, I was searching for right expressions many times, but all in all the new staff got “inducted” that day. I discovered I can survive public speaking, even if barely.

Then later on when my career took off, I had to do it more and more often, but it didn’t mean that I mastered public speaking for many years. In particular, I remember my first time presenting a big project to the Board as a new manager in my early 30s. I had been given 45 minutes for the topic on the Board’s agenda so I prepared a presentation that would take 30 minutes, leaving 15 minutes to discussion and Q & A. That sounded like an excellent plan. While I still suffered from some stage fright, I felt quite well prepared. The butterflies were under wraps.

My topic was the last on the agenda, and when the meeting went on, I became more and more worried. They discussed the other topics for ever. When my time came, there was barely five minutes left of the scheduled meeting time. I started my presentation and spoke as fast as I could (think a New Yorker) and the transparencies flew on and off the projector. Five minutes into my presentation, our Managing Director who also was the Chair, interrupted me. He told me that I had exactly two minutes to come to conclusion. Two whole minutes? I had slides to go for more than twenty minutes! I tried to cut it short but was not able to finish…what a disaster.

On the top of everything, my Managing Director came to talk to me soon after the meeting. He told me that a professional was always prepared for surprises like this…and that the Board members actually could read. I didn’t need to read my points to them. Of course I knew that. I cried walking back to my office. But I also decided that this would not happen again. For the next year or so, I had three stacks of transparencies with me, one for a full session, one for half a session and one for the eventuality that I only got a fraction of the time originally given to me :).

My lesson from all this was that I had to be so confident in mastering the topic I would speak about that I could do any length of presentation and still make my points. By time this of course got better. Until the next obstacle. I had to speak in English. In the first year of using English as my working language, I would always miss my turn to speak in meetings. By the time I had thought what to say – and translated that in my mind, the meeting had already moved to the next topic! I wonder why they didn’t fire me, a total clam. Nothing to say, ever.

Somehow life teaches us these lessons and we acquire new skills as we go. I learned to let go, not to strive for perfection, and to forgive myself for occasional mishaps. I began to trust that the right words would find me and simply learned not to take myself too seriously. Then ended up earning much of my livelihood to date by speaking up and speaking loud about topics entrusted to me, many times using humor to reach my audience. But a small butterfly is still always fluttering there close by. I think it’s there just to help me focus.

So public speaking can definitely be learned even if one doesn’t have the natural gift of speaking or charisma that captivates people. That should be comforting.