I never wanted to be a teacher. I have two sisters who are teachers, and that’s not what I wanted to be. I fancied myself in some kind of high-flying corporate career.
Which is why it’s surprising, after 20 years working for an international development bank (and let me be clear, this is not as high-flying or corporate as it sounds), that I find the part of my job I enjoy the most is teaching – of a sort.
Last year I organised a public speaking practice group for interested people in my team. I work in a team that is 95% female, 100% brilliant, but maybe 50% confident when it comes to giving presentations.
It’s well-known that speaking in public, or making a presentation, is not something many people enjoy or feel confident doing. There’s a fabulous quote from Jerry Seinfeld which sums it up:
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
I also used to hate public speaking. But I also hated it when I had to sit through someone’s poorly-prepared, poorly-presented speech. Why was it some people were so confident and made it seem so effortless and other people were so useless it made the audience feel like pulling our own teeth out? Being good at presentations is not necessarily linked to hierarchy or power – I’ve sat through dull and disorganised presentations by people who – on a small group or one-to-one basis – are sharp and scary and very much convey a sense of being in control.
At work, and during my studies, I’ve sat through many boring presentations. Droning monotone voices, columns of figures read aloud one by one, tiny fonts which make the text illegible. Presenters or lecturers who looked bored before they even began speaking. People with their backs to the class, reading out an essay converted to PowerPoint bullets. These people were meant to convey something useful or important to me and the to the others in the room and they failed to do that.
When I was at university, I had the opportunity to take a public speaking class. It ran for an hour at lunchtime over maybe six weeks, and although I can’t remember the name of the trainer who led the class, I remember that during that course, I got over my nervousness about standing up and speaking. I learnt that preparation and practice were key. And with preparation and practice comes confidence – or at least less fear.
I’d done a presentation skills course through my employer, and a one or two day course might give you some useful tips, but you get the chance to speak maybe only two or three times during the course. And when the course is over you go back to your desk and it could be a year or two before you need to stand up and speak again. And in the meantime you’ve forgotten most of what you learned. My feeling was you need to face your fear more often.
A few years ago, my team leader was leaving, and her leaving gift to the senior people in the team was a two-day presentation skills course at RADA (Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts) where they used acting techniques to help you be a better presenter. This was great, I thought, an intensive opportunity to put aside my hangups and see what I can learn. And if I fail, then this is the best and safest place to fail, and to learn from that failure. I know some of my colleagues hated the course, being made to stand up and speak is not something they wanted to do. They refused to believe they could be good at this and focussed instead on their fear instead of learning how to put away their fear.
Some years went by, and I was discussing with my mentor how to find more fulfilment in my current role. I mentioned my idea to organise a speaking group to share some of the ideas and techniques I’d learned on the RADA course. “That sounds brilliant,” she said. And when I got back to my desk, I sent an email to the team asking who would be interested in forming a group to practice public speaking. “Probably no-one will reply,” I thought, “I’ll just feel silly for asking. But at least I tried.”
Ten people replied. Out of a team of 20 that’s pretty good.
And with that one email I found myself suddenly becoming a teacher.
I had to put class plans together, do reading and research, put presentations together to convey information (no small fonts!) and find exercises that people would enjoy doing to the point they would forget to be scared. I’d been interested to sign up for Jess Regan’s Big Speeches, a full day workshop for women to focus on occupying the stage, and again, tying in acting techniques to boost your performance and took some techniques from that. It turned out she was running several sessions in my area and in the next few weeks so I had no excuse not to sign up. Having missed my train on my way home one night, I popped into the station bookshop and found Viv Groskop’s How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking starting at me from the shelf. I bought it and borrowed ideas from it too.
I started to feel that once I put my weight behind this idea and started to push it, the universe threw things my way to help me keep it moving.
Our group had twelve sessions over the second half of last year. We covering breathing, ways to deal with nerves, questions to focus on when putting a presentation together, examples of openings and presentation structures to use, analysis of speeches by famous people and what we could learn from them; as well as fun exercises to get people on their feet and speaking without overthinking, like the random words challenge, the random pictures challenge, the fake news conference, and the poetry reading.
The work I put into preparing for the Speakers Group because the happiest hours of my week. I enjoyed the research and planning, I liked thinking about how to get points across visually, I looked for ways to address specific issues people had raised. A skills analysis profile our team did last year showed that maybe I should have become a teacher – after all I had “Input” (a craving to know more, to collect and archive information) and “Developer” (recognises and cultivates potential in others, looks for signs of each small improvement) in my top five skills.
And at the end of the year, I got the buzz that teachers must sometimes get, when one of the group said to me, “I’m still shaking when I have to get up and speak but I’m shaking less now.” And if that’s all I achieve with this group, then all the hours I put into it were worth it.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I put this group together because I’m a brilliant public speaker. I’m not. My nerves sometimes get away on me. I speak too fast and forget to breathe. My jaw tightens and I forget to open my mouth wide and let the words out. But I will still get up and do it. I didn’t set the group up in the belief that I was perfect and setting an example. I did it because I wanted to share what I’d learned, provide a safe environment for people (including me!) to practice and learn and face down their fears, and ultimately to see the fabulous team of (mostly) women I work with stand up to speak and be as fabulously confident as they deserve to be.