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Public Speaking Doesn’t Have to Be So Hard. Hold Space for Your Audience.

0 Heart it! Heidi McArdle 33
September 25, 2018
Heidi McArdle
0 Heart it! 33

Would your dream weekend include going to a yoga conference and enjoying the company of interesting peers?

How about being one of the invited speakers who shares his or her story and encourages others along their path?

The older I get, the more I see people willing to share what they know, despite stage fright.  I enjoy people, but am shy, so I forced myself to attend a one-day speaking seminar for women leaders, sponsored by Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

With her cute double negative, “We can’t not communicate,” Barbara Tannenbaum, speaking coach to executives and politicians, says that “all speaking is public speaking.”

She is a researcher and lecturer at Brown University and I enrolled in her crash course on speaking for women leaders in hopes of ridding myself of a few self-defeating ums and ahs.

She began, “What I’d like to do before we end at three o’clock is change your lives.” Laughter.

A clever little bunch of us worked closely all day, delivering short presentations and listening to feedback. With anecdotes that distill the research of her field, Ms. Tannenbaum goaded us to be direct with our message and to speak to the audience’s values.

Here are my take-aways:

She spoke about two things, space and intention. The first, space, is a concept that includes the physical space we take up and the verbal space we keep uncluttered. The second concept, intention, is the main course. It’s our purpose for engagement.

Physical Space

Ms. Tannenbaum points out that moms tell daughters to have self-esteem, and then don’t model it. She had us sit “like a man” and then “like a woman”. A clever and humorous ice-breaker, it also revealed cultural conditioning to be assertive or deferential, respectively.

Men can have trouble being assertive, of course. It’s a creative art, staying this side of aggression. When standing before an audience, she told us, plant feet shoulder-width apart, weight on both feet, with shoulders back. The seated pose recommended is with legs uncrossed.

The study by Dr. Amy Cuddy which led to the popularity of holding a two-minute power pose (purportedly decreasing cortisol and increasing testosterone) has been revisited. A new study by Dr. Cuddy and two co-authors re-asserts the benefit of strong posture upon well-being.

 A young Muslim tech-entrepreneur shifted her weight from one hip to the other and added a questioning lilt even as she stated her name. The rest of her delivery showed she had expertise and passion for the upstart company she was grooming herself to build.

Although women are criticized as being aggressive when they are merely being assertive, the difference is simple, Ms. Tannenbaum notes. “Assertive says, ‘I have rights.’ Aggressive says, ‘You have no rights.’”

A relaxed stance, with hands at side, and minimal gestures calms the energy in the room. As Waylon Lewis mentions in his video on interviewing, you can think of your nervous energy as “I’m excited. I’m interested.”

Verbal Space

 “If you pause and you’re okay, then your audience is okay too.” The idea is to be personal and minimalist.

My first delivery was deferential and had lots of self-deprecating body language, as well of many qualifiers such as “kind-of”.

My second was informative and confident, but I stopped myself thinking it was awful. Everyone including Ms. Tannenbaum said, “Go on! Go on. It’s great. You’re the only one in the room who knows anything about this subject.”

I had been acting as though a bucket of dishwater was poised on the doorframe, and ready to spill on me. We often expect we will be found out, uncovered as frauds.

The truth is, I was in the same position as everyone else there. We have our experiences and areas of knowledge. If we care enough to share them, we just need to eliminate a few distractions.

One distraction is weak word choice (very, pretty, just, really). Saying “I think” or “kind of” or “you know”. If you don’t know an answer to a question, be honest, and offer to find out. Speak more slowly than you think you should. Practice your delivery. Sentences should be no longer than a line and a half.

All of these tips and hundreds more are like having an ironed shirt instead of a wrinkled one. A wrinkled delivery is one that trails off in embarrassment, shifts from one foot to another, or puts a hand up to cover the mouth when speaking. People actually do that!


It helps to consider that you are offering something of value and that it’s not really about you at all.

What’s my intention for the communication? Now that the weak stance and weak language have been eliminated, I have made a space which allows the listener to see, hear, and care about the message I’m delivering.

The two key elements in intention are 1) why should they listen to me? and 2) what’s in it for them?

Here’s how it works:

Soon after the session, I attended a local event sponsored by Grannies Respond which gave an account of their trip to the Texas border. They engaged the audience by having speakers provide lots of factual information about the crisis, layered with anecdotes. They established their knowledge and credibility by their humanitarian work. They showed us why it should matter to us by appealing to our shared humanity. They explained how the Overland Railroad was being set up to assist sponsored refugees and how we could be involved.

If this group was asked to make a presentation in a formal setting like the U.N. or Congress, they would polish the delivery down to eliminating the last “very” to prevent anything from distracting from the message about which they are so passionate.

We might not expect to give a speech, participate in a panel, or give a presentation, but with a few skills, that mode of sharing our passions and values opens up.


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0 Heart it! Heidi McArdle 33
0 Heart it! 33

Heidi McArdle Sep 25, 2018 2:08pm

Hurried with that image, didn’t I? Edit, indeed.

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