By Dr. Bjorn Mercer | 04/01/2021
Many people feel uncomfortable with public speaking, but realize it’s something they’ll have to do in their professional life. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU communications professor Myeisha Grady about strategies to improve public speaking skills, even for someone who is an introvert. Learn about stepping out of your comfort zone, shifting to a positive mindset, seeking out trusted mentors to help you, organizing a speech so it’s effective, and improving with each public speaking opportunity.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Myeisha Grady, communication faculty at the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. Our conversation today is about oral communication, public speaking, and the fear of speaking in front of others. Welcome, Myeisha.
Myeisha Grady: Thanks, Bjorn, for having me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. This is a great topic. When you look at the skills that employers are looking for, oral communication is always in the top five, and it’s also one of those things that when you are working and when you’re in management, you have to speak in front of other people, and it’s just something you have to do, and learning how to do it and learning how to be comfortable with yourself is tough and it takes a while. So that jumps into the first question is, what if I’m an introvert? How could I possibly connect with an audience?
Myeisha Grady: Being an introvert is actually not a big deal when it comes to public speaking, if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone. So when you think of being an introvert, you usually go to the negative part of things like, “Oh my goodness, I got to be around other people. Oh my goodness, they’re going to look at me,” and such. But what if you are willing to change your mindset and become a little more positive about it, and think about what the opportunity can bring your way, especially if you have a good message to give to other people?
So if you would change that quick little mindset of yours, you will be able to open up plenty of doors, plenty of opportunities and go, “You know what? It’s only going to be, I don’t know, a 30-minute talk, maybe a 10-minute talk. Then I can go ahead and sit down and relax, and be back to myself again.”
Not to say that if you need to go longer, if you need to expand longer, as long as the information is there and you’re able to present it in a professional manner, you’ll be able to fly right through it. No, it’s not going to be comfortable at first, but stepping out of your comfort zone is definitely something that will help you increase your professionalism when it comes to dealing with other people.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is excellent. And I love that we started with, “What if I’m an introvert?” Because typically if we’re talking to an extrovert, they’ll just start talking. Not to stereotype, but extroverts, some like to be the center of attention, and so the idea of speaking in front of others isn’t really a big deal for them.
For me, as an introvert, public speaking for me was really difficult for really, for many, many, many years, and one of the things that I came to realize is when I’m in front of others, it’s kind of like acting. I’m myself, but then I’m trying to portray something that is an authentic version of myself, but it’s more extroverted than what’s really me. And so, once I realized that, I was able to do much better with public speaking.
Now, what advice do you have for people that are what I describe as painfully introverted? How can they step from being painfully introverted, to just being introverted, which is not a bad word, and then being able to communicate with others in a lowercase extroverted way?
Myeisha Grady: Sure. Well, if you have that, you have to be willing to practice. So you start with a small group, start with talking with friends of yours and sharing ideas that way, then opening to maybe their friends and maybe their friends’ friends.
So start to build a comfortability with talking with strangers. Because if you are able to do that, then no matter what environment you go to, you’ll probably revert back to those experiences that will help you carry through it.
Like you said, putting on a show, being someone outside of yourself, it’s actually a good thing because you can still be you, but you are trying to embody a personality that can make you go a little further, take you a step into that professionalism that you want. And so, if you start building with people that you are familiar with and open yourself to people that you are not familiar with, at some point, you’re going to become comfortable with a crowd where it’s full of people you’re not familiar with, so build yourself up to that.
When you’re at work and you are asked to do presentations in front of your colleagues, start with those that are closest to you, your peers that you work with on a daily basis, and start practicing giving speeches on different topics that you are definitely familiar, you are the expert.
And then that way, you can build with your peers, and then you can introduce more colleagues in the company that you are not close to, but would like to be able to build that kind of rapport with. And so, you start opening yourself up in that way to speak to them, and then once the opportunity comes where you have to speak in front of the entire company, you have built that along the way.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. Really good advice. And I really like what you said, to be the professional and to demonstrate professionalism that you want to be, and I think that’s really great. Because in our minds, we all have an idea of what a good speaker is and what it means to be professional, and if we envision it, we can get there eventually.
I remember one of the things that years ago, one of my former managers said, “Hey, in meetings, you need to speak up more.” One of the things that I do is I observe and I internalize a lot of things, and I really try to choose my words carefully, but then after that, I realized that I internalized everything so much that I wasn’t even speaking in meetings.
And so, I literally created a checklist for myself. During team meetings, I had a little thing that said “Speak, check.” And it sounds silly, but every meeting, I made sure to speak about something. I didn’t have to dominate the room, but just contribute my thoughts to something, and it’s amazing how that was then noticed by my manager, when it’s just something as simple as a little checklist.
And I find that checklists, even with public speaking can be so beneficial, because it helps you focus and it helps you organize your thoughts. Now, going on to the next question, what happens if the audience finds me boring? What do we do with that?
Myeisha Grady: Well, first of all, you’re talking about an audience that you haven’t even met yet. So let’s think about a presentation that you would give in a professional setting. Usually, it would be about something where you are the expert, where you have done your research, and if you’re asked to speak on a particular topic, it’s because it is needed for your audience.
So when you are writing on that topic, because you first begin your speech by writing things down, write your outline, not the entire speech, get your three main points together that you have to go over. Or if it is a technical thing, write down the steps that you need to convey, because the audience that is being put before you, they need this information.
So what if you were to take yourself and put yourself in the place of the audience member? “Well, what is it that I need to know? How is it best that I could learn this thing and also keep it? What would I need someone to do for me, in order for me to keep this?”
So you think about the visual aids that you would bring to it, you think about demonstrations that you would bring. Think about it in terms of, “What would I need from this?” And if you’re doing something in front of colleagues, you would think about what it is they already know. The last thing you want to do is speak below someone’s educational level. You want to speak directly to them. You want to tell them you know where they are, and you know where they need to go, and “Here is the path for you to follow to get there.”
So if you were to do a presentation on some sort of demonstration, some sort of technical thing, and there has to be 10 steps, organize your way that the first step comes first. Don’t start in the middle and then work your way back, and then work your way forward. You need to do it in order so that they will understand.
And then also practice, you need to be able to practice this thing in front of other people so that you make sure “Oh, did I include this? Did I say that right? Did I make sure I added this step in there?” And sometimes when you do that in front of others who understand the process, they’ll be like, “You know what? You should go back and probably pick up this item or that item, throw this in there,” and then you’re able to get on a path of, “Okay. So I have all of my material, now let me think about, what’s a fun way that I can do this? What’s a way that I can do this where my audience will actually not only pay attention, but they will recall the information?”
So make sure that whatever you include in there, it is something that is beneficial for your audience. This way, you already know you’re not boring, because the information is needed. If you go in there thinking already that someone’s going to find you boring, it’s absolutely going to fall flat and you’re going to be boring.
But if you go in there with the mindset of, “I have good stuff to tell people, and here’s how I’m going to do it, because as an audience member, this is how I would want things done,” then you’re going to be able to reach the people in the room.
Now, mind you, there will be people there that will not be interested in what you’re saying, no matter what you do, and there is no way you can control that. Your part as the speaker is to connect with as many audience members as you can, but don’t try to control their thought process. It’s just not going to happen.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is absolutely wonderful, and your advice is spot on. I really like how you said there are going to be some people that don’t want to be there, and that’s another reality. When we were talking about ways to improve and obviously practice, one of the easy ways for professionals to do public speaking, is just talk in their meeting. Sometimes when you have team meetings, nobody wants to be there.
Myeisha Grady: Exactly.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So you’re literally talking to a group of people that they’re literally thinking, “I have to go to lunch,” or “I have to go get my tires changed.”
Myeisha Grady: Thinking about me when I’m in those meetings, I go, “What’s my shopping list. What do I need to buy?”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And so, if you try to take the cues off of what they’re doing, or heaven forbid, you’re on a Zoom call and nobody has their camera on, you’re speaking to just the void, you just really have to focus, like you said, typically in those kinds of situations, you’re delivering information that they want. And so, focus on that and really think about how they want it.
But then even when we think about politicians when they speak, they give the same speech, they give a stump speech and they go to different places, and so they’re essentially acting. They don’t even care what the audience per se feels, because they’re trying to deliver it in a way that will create a reaction, and so they’re really trying to deliver it in a very clear and concise, but probably entertaining way. Now, this is a side question. Do you recommend people trying to be entertaining, or is that something that some should not do?
Myeisha Grady: It depends. Are you an entertaining person to begin with? Is that what you do? If it’s in your wheelhouse and you always find yourself being entertaining, then yes. And then you also want to look at, “Is it appropriate for the conversation, that we’re having for the presentation that I’m doing?”
I think about eulogies. Unfortunately, with us being in a pandemic, we have had more funerals than we would like to ever have in a lifetime, especially in a short period of time. But if you think about those that have passed away and you’re delivering a eulogy, are you going to deliver a eulogy, let’s say, for someone who was extremely bubbly, very funny, charismatic? Are you going to be very monotone with your delivery of that eulogy? Probably not.
You probably want to emulate something about that person because that’s going to reach the people that are listening. They want to be reminded of the bubbly life that this person has had, and celebrate that. Of course, we’re going to mourn their passing, but we’re really going to celebrate their life. So when you’re giving a speech in that particular thought, you’re thinking about, “Yeah, I can be entertaining right here, because that’s who they were. That was the life they lived.”
However, if it was someone who was a little more serious and strict, so going back to the thought of delivering a speech with a eulogy, you are emulating that person. So if it is someone who was more serious, more driven, someone who had a passion for educating, you want to deliver a eulogy that is reflective of their life, personal and professional. So it depends on the setting that you’re in, the person or thing that you are discussing, will decide whether you should be entertaining or not.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is a wonderful suggestion, especially like you said, with COVID. People unfortunately have been having to go to funerals, and humor is so difficult because there’s nothing that makes people happier than humor, but like you said, the situation is key, and then also your own personality. And so, this leads us to the next question is, what if my peers are better than me when it comes to delivering a speech?
Myeisha Grady: Well, this is a perfect opportunity for you to have some kind of mentorship here. If you have a peer that is excellent at public speaking, and you want to get there, you need to partner with them. Figure out a way in which the two of you can discuss where you are, and how you can get to where they are. Most people who are good at public speaking will have some good tips and tools that you could probably use to get yourself started.
Most times, people will say, “I was born with this gift.” Well, that’s not exactly true. The gift has to be nurtured, and it has to be treasured, and practice comes into play because they weren’t born to know that they can get a reaction out of people. They weren’t born to know that they can educate the masses by using their voice. They weren’t born with that. That took time. They crafted, they took time to really know how to use their voice, to connect with others.
And so, you being someone who’s watching them and impressed by them, you need to learn what they are doing now, that you could possibly use to help yourself. It’s good to see that there are people that are near you that have a skill that you fall flat on right now, because they can be the ones to help you get to your next level. As long as your peers are willing to show you what they have done, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, you can take those things and apply them to yourself. Watch what they do, watch how they interact with others.
I know for me, I have been doing public speaking since kindergarten. My grandmother has always been one to be big on, you have to be able to communicate. Even now, as I raise my children, I speak very clear English to them, there is no baby talk. When the whining and baby talk happens, I’m quick to address it, confront it, because I want to raise my children to be better speakers.
Now, when I look at how my grandmother had me to go in front of my peers in kindergarten, it was all about the accolades at my house. I got plenty of praises and plenty of encouragement to keep up my energy while delivering things.
So from kindergarten all the way until now, I have been in front of people. I have been giving presentations, training others, I teach, so there’s always been that public speaking skill being utilized. And so, if your peers have been like me and doing those things all their lives, I have tips that I could share with people like, this has happened to me over the years that have made me really think about the way I said things, and then I have also paid attention to the way in which I show enthusiasm for things, because I don’t want to be over the top like I’m acting, but I want to be genuine and authentic.
And so, those are some of the tips that I can give to others, and I’m willing to listen to someone. You have a speech to give, you have a training you want to do? Practice with me. Tell me what you’re doing.
I do it with my husband all the time. He would have videos that he needed to record for work, and I would give him tips, set him up, put his lights and everything for him to do it. He’ll have a perfect first take, but then he’ll want to go back and do it again, and he would be up until two o’clock in the morning and then I’d go, “Well, which one did you use for work?” He was like, “The first one.” I wonder why? So it’s those types of things. I give the tips that I need to give, but it’s up to the recipient to take them, but if you miss that opportunity to even ask your peers, you may be doing yourself a disservice.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s amazing how if you just ask somebody for help, you’re acknowledging that they’re doing a great job, and there’s nothing that people like to do than for other people to tell them, “Hey, you’re good at something.” Most people want to help. Of course, they want to help. Rarely will you have somebody who is like, “Nope, I’m not going to help you, because it’s only about me.” It does happen, but typically, honestly, it doesn’t.
And so, I’ve found that so many people are so willing to help, and especially with public speaking, because like you said earlier, some people think that they’re just born that way, but there’s so many things in their lives that have led them to that personality trait of them practicing their entire lives.
And at the same time, if you perceive yourself as being poor at public speaking, there’s probably a lot of things in your life that have led you to that point, quote, “A quieter family,” which is, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you don’t have a rambunctious family and nobody speaks out, that might lead to it, you never know. And so, just by being around others and just like you said, just asking for help can just do so much.
Myeisha Grady: Absolutely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so, the next question I have for you, Myeisha, is as you are speaking and doing public speaking, what happens if people laugh at you?
Myeisha Grady: Well, you have to think about this. If you can’t laugh at yourself and be vulnerable, then you’re going to be a little bit miserable. So you also can’t really control what other people do. So let’s say you make a mistake during a presentation, and others laugh. Most times, they are laughing to break up some tension that’s happening, but you also can’t really control other people’s response to you.
What if they’re actually laughing with you, not necessarily at you, or laughing about the situation and it has nothing to do with you? It’s outside of your control. You have to be able to jump back into whatever it is that you were discussing, and continue on. Take it in stride, take a deep breath. Know that, “If they were laughing at me, well, I’m me, and I’m going to continue to be me, and I’m going to continue to give the message that I need to give, and go ahead and be on about my business, because that’s pretty much what I was asked to do.”
So don’t try to control the way people respond to you, let them be themselves, and you be yourself authentically, and be vulnerable to the situation. Know that it is okay. Laughter is good for the soul, as we say, so you have to be willing to accept laughter in a presentation.
I know with me, when I’m presenting to students and I see that they are not really grasping the material that I’m giving, I will find a way to put something in there that’s going to make them laugh, and that’s a good thing. But sometimes I find that they will laugh at something that I really didn’t deem as funny, and I’m looking around going, “What just happened?” But instead of me trying to figure it out, if I don’t have time, I’m just going to continue to move forward. “Whatever it was, okay. Let it be.” So if you get stuck at someone laughing, you’re probably not going to be able to finish what you have to say. Continue.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And you have to be okay with the fact that people will laugh, just like you said. And it happens, and rarely are you in a position where you’re giving a speech and people will heckle you. You’re in a normal public speaking situation at work, amongst peers, nobody will laugh. And sometimes people do laugh, but it’s because something happened, or inadvertent.
I always remember early in my teaching career, and we were talking about different musicians that had recently come out, and it was when Eminem had just come out. And me, the classical musician that I was, not being familiar with pretty much rap or any hip hop because my head was stuck in scores, I was in front of a class, we were talking about it and I couldn’t remember the name. I was like, “What is his name?”, and I said, “Enema?”
And the entire class, I lost them, they were laughing, and I had to just be like, “I just made a fool of myself, but you know what? That is okay, because that was a funny joke that I didn’t mean to say.” And it’s just one of those things that I just learned that I was wrong, but I laughed with them, and we went on. When you make mistakes like that, it’s always better to laugh with the people if it’s something like that.
Myeisha Grady: Absolutely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Acknowledge it, have a little self-deprecating humor, and then move on.
Myeisha Grady: Absolutely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And then, so that leads me to the next question is, what if I get stuck or forget my lines?
Myeisha Grady: So usually, this happens when fear has become full-blown inside of you. You’re now doubting yourself, you are now thinking, “Oh my goodness, what did I get myself into?” So those doubts that you’re listening to, is fear yelling at you.
So whenever you go for something that’s bigger and better than where you are today, your words, they may go away. Because barriers like fear will show up and they will show up in every way possible. So if you want something, you have to possess the confidence and the competence to go after it, and you can not let losing track of your thoughts at that moment keep you back.
So the best thing you can do when you do lose what you want to say next, let’s go back to the last main point that I made. Let’s go back to that, “Figure out where I am, and then I’ll pick up from there.” Or if you are at a point where you can just pretty much wrap up that last point and move on to the next one, that’s your perfect opportunity to do that.
And then also, take inventory of that fear that you felt, and let yourself be reminded, “The next time I get to this point, I am going to overcome fear, because I can’t afford for it to take away my big opportunities that are presented to me.”
So any time you think that you want to go after something that is bigger, that is better than where you are today, just know fear is going to come. It’s going to bring that doubt, and you have to figure out a way in which to overcome that.
When it’s in the heat of the moment, yes, it could be difficult to do that, but if you remain firm on where you are with your message, if you are confident in the message that you are giving, you’ll be able to shoot fear right on down and keep going, but it is up to you to decide whether you’re going to let forgetting your words sabotage everything that you have going.
An outline is always key, note cards, always key, if you feel like you need them. But do not sit there and read everything. Please don’t read your speech. That is a good way to be boring, right off the bat.
But if you jot down a couple of notes for yourself, you’re able to go back to those notes and go, “Okay, this is where I left off, I think I’m done talking about this. All right, here’s a wrap-up for that,” and move onto the next point. There’s no need to get stuck. You have it in the bag, if you have done your homework before you got up there. Now, if this is an impromptu thing, on the spot type of stuff that you have to produce because your job just asked you to do it right there, might be a good time to wrap it up.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s true, and I really like how you said, “You’ve got this in the bag.” And it all depends again, going on the situation, having note cards, having an outline, that is key if you’re giving a structured or somewhat semi-serious kind of presentation, and it’s important. And then if you’re giving a PowerPoint, the structure is inherent because you’re using a PowerPoint, some sort of presentation software, and so, that gives you the structure, and so you just have to follow the structure.
And like you said, when things are a little more impromptu, well, that’s harder, and even I would say, well-seasoned people struggle with impromptu speeches, unless you’ve got a stump speech about something, and then you can probably do well, but it’s all about just trying to do a good job and recover. And so, and this leads me to the last question is, what if I fail?
Myeisha Grady: Well, failure is depicted upon who said you failed, who gave you that? Because critics, they’re everywhere, but you should only listen to the critics that actually matter, that have some kind of stake in your future. Those that don’t have it and they really don’t care whether you succeed or not, those are the people that you don’t want to listen to about failing anything.
Most times, when people say, “Ah, I blew it,” you are your worst critic. You will not give yourself a pass. We somehow, as human beings, have become so self-absorbed that we can’t seem to see outside of ourselves, and we’re going to be the hardest on ourselves.
So if you would pull yourself out of the equation and ask your peers, your colleagues, people that actually matter in your next step, that you know matter in your next step, those are the ones that you want to go to, be like, “You know what? How’d I do?” If your peer is your mentor, like the one that you said that does a lot better than you, go back, “Hey, you heard me. How did that go? What can I do better?” Those are the people you want to rely on to tell you whether you definitely bombed it or not.
Now, it can’t be a complete bomb if you actually got up there to do it, because that failure, as you want to call it, can actually set you up for success the next go-round. It is a very good lesson learned. Some people have had issues where, “You know what? I got up in front of people. I was so nervous that I ended up sweating so profusely in my cotton shirt, and everyone saw it.” Well, everyone did see it, but was your message good enough to overshadow that? And then next time, put on more deodorant, or run a fan, or something that’s going to help you to not experience that again. Take that as a lesson and apply it to the next one, because you have to do better the next time, right? There is no way that you will go and fail the same way all over again, if you take the necessary steps to improve yourself for the next one.
I would always tell my students that, “You’re not nervous. You are excited when it comes to giving speeches, because you have to change your mindset.” Let’s think about going on a date. When you’re getting ready for a date, for someone who you really love or really want to see, you’re going to get yourself all dolled up for it, and you’re going to have butterflies in your stomach. You’re going to be so excited for this to happen. God forbid if you have an opportunity to kiss this person. Oh my goodness, what excitement you would feel. Well, when you’re excited, your palms sweat, you get little butterflies in your stomach, you get these “What ifs, what ifs?” And so, your eyes light up and you begin to blush a little.
When you’re nervous, those same things present itself. The difference is the label you chose to give it. You decided to say that you’re nervous, which is a negative effect, rather than you’re excited, which is a positive effect. So before you even think about failing at giving a speech, what mindset did you walk into it with? Figure that part out first, before you even decide to go in to your public speaking opportunity.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that, and having a positive mindset is really key, and I really love what you said about that, because there is no real failure because it’s all about learning and it’s all about doing a good job, and potentially, like you said, setting yourself up for the next time.
I can only compare it to when I used to give concerts as a classical musician. After the concert, I’d be done and I’d be like, “I just did terrible. That was the worst concert I’ve ever done in my life. Did you hear the hundred mistakes I made?” And the average person was like, “You just did a good job. I liked it,” and then other people, other musicians who didn’t play my instrument said, “That was good, I heard a few things,” and then the people who did play my instrument was like, “You did a good job. It’s a hard piece. Don’t worry about it.”
But it’s funny how no matter how many concerts I did, I still had that such intense criticism that it was just really hard to break through that. And public speaking is the same thing, and if you just give yourself a pass and say, “It’s okay, I’m doing a good job,” because honestly, especially with public speaking, it’s tough, but most people don’t like to do it. And so, everybody understands, everybody is very, very patient.
Myeisha Grady: Absolutely. I think about the many public speaking courses that I’ve led, and just people coming there with just such a negative outlook to begin with, and I’m just looking at them going, “You’re going to be okay. This is the place where you get to mess up all you want to, and I’m going to be the one to give you the feedback going, ‘Here’s what you need to work on, but you did fine.'” And I’m always going to say that, even when the students who would give emotionally driven speeches and just can’t seem to get through it and stumble over their words, I’m in the room, just nodding my head like, “You got this,” and then their peers start speaking up and saying, “You know what? You got this, don’t worry. Come on. We’re here with you. We’re here with you,” and it’s just amazing for that person to see, “People actually do like me, people actually are listening to me,” and sometimes that little bit of reassurance can give them the confidence that they need to just keep going.
I mean, when you give your concerts, the applause that you hear, the accolades that you get, it’s just, you have to be able to take that in and apply it for the next time like, “You know what? Maybe I didn’t do as bad as I thought I did. If I go back and listen to the tape, oh, you know what? This piece was difficult. Maybe if I would’ve practiced in a different way,” all of that happens as you move forward and think about the next one. If you get stuck on this one, you’re never going to succeed.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And there is no binary to success, especially when it comes to public speaking or anything like that, because everything can be a success. And so, if you approach it that way and just realize that, “I’m improving incrementally,” that is a good way to always improve and then to always have a positive outcome, no matter what. And so, this has been a great conversation, Myeisha, thank you so much. Any final words about public speaking and oral communication?
Myeisha Grady: Sure. We all have to do it at some point, so why not get in a habit of practicing it now? You can only get better with time.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree, and just like you said, you were practicing in kindergarten, I’m making my kids practice kindergarten and on.
Myeisha Grady: Yes.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And it’s not a bad thing, and no matter what, in our lives as adults, we don’t have to give a lot of speeches, but when they happen, it’s better to have a good experience than just be racked with self-doubt.
Myeisha Grady: Absolutely, absolutely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Today, we’re speaking with Myeisha Grady about oral communication, public speaking, and the fear of speaking in front of other people. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.