Public-speaking skills in 2020

At a time when so many of us have been forced by circumstances to come to terms with online conferences, daily home-office video calls and countless other forms of online communication, the quality of your presentation skills has never been more important or relevant than it is today. Here's a few thoughts on the subject...
Foto: Łukasz Cioch, LCMedia.pl
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Łukasz Cioch, LCMedia.pl

Let's start with a little example taken from an industry for which the world 'communication' is absolutely key. The industry in question represents the world of meetings: conferences, fairs, congresses, concerts and all kinds of other group encounters. As irony would have it, a lot has changed for the global event industry, over a very short period of time, following the impact of something so small that you cannot even see it with your own eyes. There are still rather few certainties about the future of the entire event sector, however, those who will survive the impact of the prolonged restrictions, will no doubt come out stronger and much more resilient in their ability to adapt to the requirements of the "new normal".

People often ask me: How different does it feel to work as a host during an online/hybrid conference compared to a more traditional on-stage format, with a live audience and all? The simple answer is: these are two different worlds with two different sets of requirements and characteristics, even though on the surface, they probably seem very much alike to many. To better explain these differences, we should probably start with the big WHYs and HOWs of the "grand 2020 virtual migration".

Old habits die hard

I really can't stress it enough: when organizing your (first or twenty-first) online conference, DON'T try to create a carbon copy of your offline experience in the virtual "on screen" world. Why? Well, to begin with, it's governed by a very different set of rules and principles. Much as you may feel tempted to have the same keynotes, panel discussions and PPT presentations, more often than not, it's the worst path you can follow as an organizer. Instead, you might want to start by asking yourself at least a few of the fundamental questions:

  1. FORMAT: Does it really make sense to give up exploring the (amazing!) creative potential of the "new" medium? Doing a little research to better understand the digital habitat, its "natural" advantages and shortfalls, can only open your eyes to the creative opportunities you had never thought of before. Make them play to your advantage!
  2. DURATION: Should individual conferece segments have exactly the same length (e.g. a 90-minute debate) or should they perhaps be shorter, much shorter...and facilitated in a very different way, perhaps. To begin with, there's so much you can (and should!) skip and forget about in the online world. The level of audience patience (and tolerance!) you're used to taking for granted in a traditional conference ecosystem is infinitely less generous in the online jungle, full of fascinating little paradoxes, as it is. 
  3. PACKAGING: Don't overdo it! Focus (much!) more on content quality, discipline and dynamics, than expensive animation gimmicks, cool-looking transitions, and other visual fireworks. To make my point here a little more emphatically, let me say this: typically, conferences with weak, predictable content try to (over)compensate with memorable visuals and expensive stage design. Having said that, if your content is top notch, an extra effort towards presentation quality and aesthetics will only help you deliver better results, not to mention the positive impact on some of the key reputation drivers.

These are merely a few of the long list of questions you should ask yourself at design stage.

Conference hosts: preparation & research

It may surprise you to hear it but the way I prepare for an online event is quite different from preparation for conferences, congresses and concerts staged in a traditional event centre, like ICE Kraków Congress Centre (my second home, by now). So different in fact, that whichever parameter of preparations I look at (research, script, timing, presentation techniques, body language) there might just be more differences than similarities.

Let's just say that if you want to understand the key principles of online (vs. offline), the best word of advice I could leave you with is: study the successful vloggers, see how they do it and ask yourself why they do what they do the way they do! To be a successful vlogger these days, you really have little choice but to put your heart and soul into it, have a sharp eye for detail, a continuous-improvement mindset and an uncanny ability to constantly look for insightful feedback. One might even risk an assumption that compared to professional vloggers, even the best event organizers out there have next to no self-observation skills.

The biggest obstacle to public-speaking progress?

No, it's not stage fright, stress levels or poor memory. Nor is it any particular type of inferiority complex you feel you have been tormented since childhood. If there's one major irony in public-speaking training that just about every public-speaking coach is aware of it's this: the bigger your client's ego (aka I'm already great! Why should I even consider public-speaking training in the first place?) the more significant the overall progress you will likely achieve working together, over as short a period of time as just 1 DAY OF TRAINING, mind you.

This unique window of "ego-grinding opportunity", however, will only stay open for a very short while, i.e. the time it takes your client to reach some conclusions about you. The smarter and more experienced the person you'll be dealing with, the bigger the ego, hence, the less time you'll be graced with for establishing the necessary levels of credibility as a coach. Needless to say, perhaps, credibility is linked to trust. Having done your pre-training homework, you need to be absolutely sure you can contribute genuine value for your client as a coach, and do so in a relatively short period of time. 
In case you wondered, it's not necessarily the easiest of challenges to prove to your client (in a convincing and unequivocal manner, I dare add) that the key obstacle to progress they have not been able to acknowledge for years is the very same obstacle they have long failed to spot when looking in the mirror every morning. 

And then there's genuine fear of public speaking

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of people out there who feel that stage fright, stress management, speech writing or content design is where they definitely have some room for improvement. I have only one message for them: the benefits of "exposing yourself" to a tailored public-speaking programme, especially one-on-one, will immediately translate to a major leap forward in your self-training and continuous-improvement skills. All it takes is a little trust and open-mindedness. If the company or institution you work for values your skills and professional contribution, you will certainly have no difficulty explaining to your boss or HR department that some coaching opportunities are more important to you, personally, than others. Ultimately, some skill gaps and mental barriers have much broader repercussions than we are intuitively prepared to acknowledge.

After all, strong presentation and communication skills may come in handy when you least expect it, in one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that define who we are, how well we really know ourselves and whether we can express what we think and feel, when it matters most.

At a time when so many of us are still coming to terms with a pervasive sense of isolation, uncertainty, your communication skills will no doubt matter more than ever before. With so many jobs, industries, even entire economies undergoing unprecedented, often forced transformation, we really are living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous reality. Who would have thought that as far back as 1987, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus had similar thoughts thinking about the post-Cold-War world, when coining the acronym (VUCA) that is experiencing a true renaissaince today, in 2020.


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