Sunday, September 30, 2012

Remain Calm. All is well. Maybe Not.

What to do when public speaking panic strikes!!  

The Commonwealth of Virginia IT Symposium (COVITS) is an annual event that brings together the IT staff, managers, CIOs and dignitaries from state and local government in Virginia. The focus of the conference is technology innovation in action. The second day of the conference was unique this year because Governor McDonald was scheduled to deliver the closing remarks at 11:30 am. There were no breakout sessions that day and all the events were to be held in the main ballroom.

The “master of ceremonies” for COVITS is a man by the name of Jack Mortimer. Jack and I have known each other for years, and I have assisted him with the annual planning of COVITS in a variety of ways. Jack was in a bit of a bind on the second day of the conference. The speakers had all ended early and the Governor was running late. Jack had about 45 minutes of slack time in the schedule and no speakers. Jack is a real pro, and I knew he would figure something out. Little did I know. 

I think you can see where this is going. 

Jack first called to the stage the previous presenters for the morning and tried to probe a bit more about their topics. That ate a bit of time up. He then gave some remarks about something I can’t remember, I wasn’t paying attention at this point. I had happily moved on to working in email at my table. 

That is when it happened. I heard jack mention how pleased he was to see the technology innovation by the localities, and he wondered if anyone from a local government would like to say a few words to the audience. Okay, now I started paying attention. I’m thinking “don’t do it Jack, don’t do it Jack..” And then I hear him say “…is Barry Condrey in the audience?”. Argh. My heart stopped beating. All the air got sucked out of the room. He was calling me to the podium to say a few words about the IT innovation success in Chesterfield County (where I am CIO). Holy cow. 

The first thing I did was panic. I eventually got it together, but let me tell you I was very very intimidated when he called on me. The Secretary of Technology for Virginia was there, the Virginia state CIO was there, the CIOs for all the major state agencies as well as many localities were there. And, about 250 other IT leaders and vendors.  All waiting on the Governor and me. 

So here is the point of the article: What do you do when someone calls on you to deliver remarks on a moment’s notice, to a crowd? I have five suggestions for you. 

First, do not panic. You panic and your brain shuts down. It is over at that point, you will not be happy with your remarks. Remain calm, breathe deeply. Remember, whoever called you up there has confidence enough in you to entrust the entire audience to you. Have confidence in yourself!

Second, take your time. This is one thing I did right. I walked slowly to the stage. If in a meeting and this happens, don’t speak right away. Acknowledge that you have been called on, and perhaps restate the question as a way to give your brain a moment to get in gear. 

Third, keep it simple. No one expects you to announce the cure for cancer or impress anyone. Think of two or at most three points to make or areas to address. Stick to those two areas. Go with what you know. Always think about people first when making remarks and acknowledge others. 

Fourth, remain calm. Keep breathing. Speak. Slowly. Pause. For. Effect. Single biggest issue with occasional public speakers: they talk too fast.  

Fifth, smile, smile, smile. Look like you are having fun even if you aren’t! Make a good-natured joke about all the time you had to prepare remarks. 

If you do this, you will at least be presentable and not make the entire audience uncomfortable. They will remember that you were at least somewhat poised although perhaps nervous. 

So what happened to me? I walked slowly to the stage, thinking of a couple things I wanted to say, I thanked Jack for all the notice, and then spoke for just a few minutes. I acknowledged the hard work the staff in Chesterfield does day in and day out to make technology innovation a reality. I talked too fast, although I did smile. I recognized the board of supervisors for the vision and funding to carry out the mission. I thanked the audience, and went and sat down. It was nothing flashy but at least it wasn’t too embarrassing.  

This will happen to you at some point. It may be in a meeting at work, in church, at a dinner or even a funeral. Don’t panic, take your time, keep it simple, remain calm and smile. You will be surprised how well you do!

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