Once upon a time, I felt right at home in front of an audience. As a corporate trainer for (the old) Anheuser-Busch, I was in front of people several times a month for years and loved every minute of it. I could make people laugh and joke about beer and Clydesdales, and drop fascinating bits of trivia like how many bottles of beer stacked one on top of the other it would take to go to the moon and back.
I used to tell people who were afraid of public speaking to just know their subject matter and talk about what they know. ”It’s easy,” I’d say. ”Nothing to be nervous about if you really know your stuff. Remember, your audience probably doesn’t know squat about what you’re yammering on about so you at least know more than they do.”
That’s mostly true, at least in a training situation. If you can make things light and fun and make people smile and offer enough nuggets of new information to keep them interested, you’ll seem worthy of their attention and you’ll keep them engaged.
Well, that was a long time ago and other than presenting to students at Webster University, I haven’t done any public speaking since 2004. Until Thursday morning, that is. I had been invited to speak at the IABCstl Social Media Seminar. Someone had heard through the grapevine that I might know a thing or two about social media and sent me a note asking if I’d be interested. While I assured them I was no guru, I was terribly flattered, not to mention excited about the possibilities and connections I could make while I’m finding my way up the ranks of who’s who in digital media.
With everything else going on in my life, putting together my presentation was placed on the back burner and I was hoping the Universe would kindly drop some inspiration in my lap. These people would already know some of what I know and I would need to knock their socks off. Needless to say, I found said inspiration and stayed up until 1AM the night prior, plotting out every detail of my talk, visualizing each transition, and imagining the audience participating and hanging on my every word (because I’m just that fascinating.) ha ha.
Other than the openers, I was up first for which I was very grateful–this way, no one else could say what I was going to say before I could say it. I was feeling confident and raring to go! But then, just like that, I was thrown for a loop when the woman who introduced me, said almost everything about me that I had planned on saying myself in my opening slide. So, I’m standing there, briefly panicking, my head swimming with alternate transitions I could use and I froze. The room went completely silent as I stared at my notes blankly wondering if I could just disappear and then a little miracle happened. There was an interruption. Never thought I’d be thankful for a problem with the sound system. My mic was broadcasting in the other room. Even with the horror of now two rooms of people hearing me fumble, it couldn’t have come at a better time. This little break lightened the room, made things seem more casual and gave me a second to compose myself and remember that I do know what I’m doing and to just talk.
As I formally, and somewhat awkwardly made it through the first portion of my presentation, things really started to take shape as soon as I was able to talk about cats! Yes, I was talking about social media, but thanks to my work with Nestle Purina, all three incredible examples of extraordinary consumer engagement I brought with me were about Fancy Feast and the cats who tweet and blog about it. I was back! I was finally truly back in my element, making people smile (because who doesn’t love a cat), and talking about what I know. Yes, I know cats. But I also know social.
I found it remarkable how much more engaged the audience became when pets were involved in the conversation. It’s no wonder 90% of the Internet is cats! They are natural ice breakers. As soon as a cute kitten appears, the pressure is off and the air is a little bit more breathable. What? You hate my speech? Here’s a kitten! Now you’ve forgotten my rocky start, haven’t you?! Works every time. And I do believe people did forget. I had even forgotten. I had forgotten what I had written on all those slide notes and remembered how to relate to a crowd. I won’t say I rocked it, but I did just fine and the people were interested and entertained.
I loved being back out there in public as the respected, knowledgeable professional that my cats know I am.