Learning to speak is much more than simply knowing your content.
A few weeks ago, I attended an excellent two-day "Presentations Skills" course run by The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London. Greg De Polnay, an actor in the Dr. Who series and acting coach, led the training.
Being in the class was an experience in itself: At the time the Academy happened to be auditioning for "We Will Rock You" cast members, which made for some outstanding lunchtime entertainment!
I have given dozens, maybe hundreds, of presentations over the years, and each time I have spent a considerable amount of time honing the content. I have made sure that the slides were just so. I've read around the subject in order to be able to intelligently field any possible questions. I've read and re-read my slides and notes to be sure that they conveyed the message I wanted to communicate.
And that was it -- preparation complete. I could face my audience secure in the knowledge that I knew what I was talking about. Even so, I always felt afterwards like I was getting away with something, like something important was missing.
My mates in the class worked and held senior positions in government, scientific research, and other areas. They, too, felt the gnawing absence of that certain something in their presentation skills.
And we were right. Something was missing.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the RADA course is the time not spent talking about content. Why? Well, consider this: If you don't make any connection with your audience, if you don't gain their confidence, or if you sound like a pipsqueak at the front of the room, then what you have to say won't matter. No one will be listening anyway.
So, we spent time on stance. On breathing. On tongue exercises, tongue twisters, voice exercises -- which now enable me to drive the cat crazy ("Hu-hum-mum-mum-ma-hay"). Not even the words of Shakespeare ("God for Harry, England, and Saint George!") or Martin Luther King Jr. ("I have a dream today") were sacrosanct from our ever-increasing confidence.
Only towards the end of the second day did we do any actual presenting. Naturally we were all nervous. We were about to present to a professional voice coach and a group of our peers. We were focused on the key elements of the training, and the pressure to demonstrate how much we had learned was weighing heavily on us. Fortunately, we had been taught to accept our nervousness as a positive and to embrace it.
Our five-minute presentations were to be based on a topic from our professional lives. I'm happy to report that there are now certain economists in the UK government who are wiser about the merits of code structural analysis than you (or they!) might have ever imagined.
When I got up to present, I was amazed -- really amazed -- at the impact of the training. I could actually feel it in me: I was more animated, more grounded, more convinced that I was able to present and had something useful to say. My self-confidence became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What has taken me by surprise, though, is how much the training has helped me in other ways: I have become much more confident and proactive. My understanding of the messages one can project by sitting or standing in particular ways has helped me to be more aware of how others perceive me. My new knowledge of how to breathe in order to project vocally has also proved useful, even if only enabling me to talk over the din of a noisy bar!
If anyone had told me 20 years ago that I, cynical techie that I am, would learn this much from two days in a drama school, I would have laughed out loud at them. Well guess what? My only regret now is that is that I didn't do it 20 years earlier -- and that public speaking wasn't worthy of at least a couple of days in my college curriculum.
So, my advice? If you should get the chance to attend a course like this -- grab it! If nothing else, you'll have fun driving your cat insane.