Updated: Jun 30, 2020
A black diamond indicates an expert slope in skiing. For years, I have avoided skiing down black diamond slopes even though my family members would go ahead without me. Just the thought of the slope scared the heck out of me. I didn’t have the courage, the nerve, or the skills to attempt skiing down a black diamond until last week when my youngest son cheered me on, “go ahead mom, you can do it!” The experience was monumental for me. For years, I had imagined an impossible task when in reality the task was very doable. After my skiing breakthrough, it occurred to me that there are many parallels between speaking to an audience and skiing down a black diamond. Many of the executives who I work with fear public speaking. They actually panic before getting in front of an audience. According to popular polls, public speaking is the number one fear, death is number two. Who knows, maybe skiing down a black diamond is also on the list.
Here are a few suggestions that will help you overcome your fear and become an expert.
First of all, you have to be willing to move out of your comfort zone. All of us have comfort zones; there are things we do that are comfortable for us. Comfortable meaning that we don’t stress about these things, get anxious, or lose sleep. It takes courage to move out of your comfort zone. John Wayne once said, “courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” Many executives don’t have a choice when it comes to public speaking; it is a requirement of the job. The good part about moving out of your comfort zone is that you learn something new.
Develop skills. Before attempting to ski down a black diamond, a skier must learn how to turn and stop. The more the skier practices, the more skilled he will become. It’s the same with becoming a skilled speaker. At a minimum, a speaker should learn how to use visual language (facial expressions, hand gestures, movement) and verbal language (sounds and tones) to engage an audience. It also helps when the speaker has great content. A good coach can help with advanced speaking skills like crafting relevant stories and interacting with the audience.
Practice, practice, practice. There is an old saying that proper practice prevents poor performance. The more you practice and get constructive feedback, the better you will be. Every ski resort that I know of offers lessons for every type of skier from beginner to expert. Trained coaches know how to deliver relevant feedback to move their students to the next level. If you ski or speak once a year, you probably won’t develop expert skills. If you consistently ski down more challenging slopes or speak to larger audiences, you will develop expertise!
Prepare for disruptions. No matter how much you prepare, there is always something that can go wrong. When you ski, it could be crowded, icy, or below zero. Every day is different just like every audience is different. Years ago a very loud fire alarm went off during my keynote speech to Con Edison in NYC. I stopped talking immediately and waited for instructions from the event planner. She told me that we didn’t have to evacuate the building. As soon as the alarm stopped, we took a short break. After the break, I was able to get the audience focused again.
Plan your course. Every good speech has a beginning, middle and an end. Commit to where you are going and go that way. Stay within your timeframe.
Create smooth transitions, be predictable. Make sure that your content makes sense and that you share relevant stories and examples.
Learn to recover quickly. It doesn’t matter if you fall or make a mistake, what matters is how you recover. Great speakers use self deprecating humor or other techniques and move on. Great skiers get up and learn from their mistakes.
Invest in quality equipment. I have fallen many times on ski slopes and thank God my helmet has protected my head! Investing in a helmet is smart.I have also invested in other equipment. I use my own projector, laptop and clicker when speaking to an audience. I prefer to use my equipment because I know how it works. When I can’t use my equipment, I arrive early and rehearse. Running through a sound check and playing videos ahead of time is critical.
Do your best and don’t apologize. You may not be the best skier or the best speaker but you are trying. Give yourself credit for trying to develop new skills. Eventually, you will become an expert. Expert performance doesn’t happen overnight, it happens after years of focused practice. You are on your way.
Have fun. At the end of the day, ask yourself, did I have fun? If the answer is no, perhaps you should be doing something else. If the answer is hell yeah! You might be wondering what took you so long.