Monday, February 4, 2019

Communications Pro Joel Schwartzberg Gets to the Point on Public Speaking

Joel Schwartzberg
Over the past seven months I've been impressed by the caliber of writers I've encountered on Medium, the blogging platform developed by Ev Williams who originally co-founded Blogger and Twitter. Near the end of January I discovered Joel Schwartzberg, an executive communications professional, public speaking coach, author, and former national champion public speaker.

When I was young, public speaking was one of those things that pretty much terrified me, so I reached out and asked if Joel might share some of his insights here.

This interview is packed with useful information that can help you grow in confidence and effectiveness as a public speaker.

EN: What is it that makes people so deathly afraid of public speaking?

Joel Schwartzberg: I believe public speaking fear is more related to a fear of general embarrassment and public shame than to the mechanics of public speaking. People might be similarly fearful of singing or doing magic tricks. So, overcoming that fear requires feeling confident that you can effectively convey your point and that it will be successfully received (or that you will sing on key or won’t saw someone in half.)

In my workshops, I counsel speakers to focus on three primary tactics to overcome public speaking anxiety (sometimes called Glossophobia):

• Practice out loud (not just mumbled or in your head)

• Think "I'm excited" instead of "I'm nervous." Studies show the two are related feelings and substituting "I'm excited" for "I'm nervous" – in your head as well as out loud – redirects that ball of nervous energy to boost your confidence and motivation to succeed.

• Know your job is to present your point, not yourself. When speakers realize their top job is to convey a point – which is external to them – the task seems less intimidating because it has little to do with who they are and how they appear. Though they may not realize it, most public speakers aren’t selling themselves (high risk of shame), they’re selling their points (lower risk of shame). This is why I describe public speaking as a “presentation,” never a “performance.”

EN: When did you take up an interest in public speaking as a career? What was the path from schoolboy to professional trainer?

JS: After I completed my competitive speaking career, both as a competitor and as a collegiate coach, I thought the “public speaking” part of my life had ended. But then I realized I was leveraging those skills in many settings, including interviewing for jobs, speaking up at meetings, communicating with bosses and direct reports, brainstorming, pitching to potential clients, giving performance reviews, and presenting at conferences.

In 2016, wanting to share my expertise and do more public speaking myself, I approached (which offered in-person NYC professional development classes) and successfully pitched them on a public speaking course. They agreed, and that course evolved into the workshop I run today, which focuses on the most fundamental aspect of successful public speaking: identifying, sharpening, and championing your point.

My private clients now include American Express, Comedy Central, Blue Apron, the Brennan Center for Justice, and The American Jewish Committee. In 2013, I connected my outside-of-work passion with my day job when I joined the ASPCA as Senior Director of Strategic and Executive Communications. In that role, I help craft and hone vital communications as well as coach executives and our full staff to elevate their presentation and point-making skills.

When I’m not eating, sleeping or taking care of my cats, I’m often writing about, speaking about, posting about, coaching, and practicing effective communications. Good thing I never learned how to golf.

EN: They say practice makes perfect. What are some ways that people can improve their public speaking? Are there places where we can create opportunities to practice?

JS: First and foremost, people need to know what their point is, which can be challenging because most leaders and communicators confuse true points with topics, themes, ideas, and titles. When they practice in front of people, the question they should ask is not “How did I do?” but “What point do you think I was trying to make?” If your audience successfully receives your point, that’s the ballgame. Nothing else matters quite so much, which is not something you’ll hear from most professional public speaking coaches.

I’ve been a member of several Toastmaster International clubs over the years and have found those experiences to be enjoyable and somewhat helpful, especially for people who are highly fearful. People who want to elevate their public speaking skills should also volunteer to run meetings, speak at corporate Town Halls and other internal events, and apply to speak or be part of panels at relevant conferences.

They can also do open poetry, stand-up comedy, public storytelling – anything that involves both preparation and public communication. All of this is good practice because good practice is about getting your mind and your mouth to work together to produce clear points.

EN: You were a National Champion Speaker. Can you elaborate on who gives that award and what you did to prepare for this competition?

JS: At the middle school, high school, and collegiate level, competitive public speaking is called forensics, with national associations governing the activity and hosting national tournaments. The two largest collegiate forensic national tournaments are the American Forensic Association (AFA) National Individual Events Tournament and the National Forensic Association (NFA) National Tournament.

Many people are familiar with this in terms of formal debate, but there are also individual events involving performances of prose, poetry, and drama; memorized speeches; and limited preparation speeches. That’s what I did, starting in 6th grade and continuing all the way through my senior year at Emerson College.

Thirteen years doing one activity is a long time, so I was thrilled and proud to be the NFA National Champion in “After Dinner Speaking” (ADS) in 1990. In ADS competition, a speaker delivers a 10-minute humorous speech with a serious point. That year, I also won 10th place in the overall pentathlon, which combines scores in several events.

Throughout my forensics career, I learned as much from watching my competitors as I did from my coaches’ critiques, taking note of what worked and what didn’t, and tweaking my presentations down to individual words, inflections, and gestures.

Public speaking improvement is a never-ending journey – even for the best of us – and communicators and communication professionals should keep their minds and eyes open for new ideas and approaches. That’s one of the reasons I’m so eager to share my expertise and what I know, whether through my workshop, my book, or on Twitter and LinkedIn.

EN: Speechwriting is, to some extent, an art that precedes speech making. Any tips for writers on how to write effective speeches that others will be giving?

JS: As a writer, it breaks my heart to say this, but great speeches do not typically rely on the words. Audiences won’t remember what you said, but they will remember what you meant. They won’t remember your words, but they will remember your point. So great speechwriting is about boiling down a strong point to its most basic essence, then using stories, evidence, and reasoning to support and convey it powerfully. If a speechwriter or speaker can’t express his or her point in a single sentence that begins “I believe that…” then the point is not fully-formed. I call this the “I Believe That” test.

For the most part, I counsel speakers to NOT write out their speeches. Public speaking audiences don’t want to be read to, and it’s very challenging to read with conviction. Reading a word-for-word speech can also decimate your credibility, your authenticity, and your connection, so I only recommend writing full speeches for select conference keynotes or political speeches, where word precision is often expected.

Most speakers should create sparse notes that serve as a roadmap or cheat sheet. Think of it like a shopping list or a band’s setlist – reminding you of your major points in the order they should be covered, and anything else you might otherwise forget, like a name, a date, or a statistic.

EN: I like the title of your book, “Get to the Point.” What prompted you to write this book and who is it directed toward?

JS: I wrote “Get to the Point!” to share more widely the importance of knowing, sharpening, and selling a point, which I don’t see referenced well in other books or through Google searches. I also felt that my PowerPoint made a poor follow-up resource for audiences and students participating in my workshop, whereas the book covers everything I teach, often with a light-hearted touch.

Get to the Point!” is not just a book for “public speakers.” It’s for anyone whose success hinges on effectively conveying a point, and that’s all of us – students, parents, entrepreneurs, salespeople, politicians, podcast hosts, authors, doctors, bloggers, civil servants, and social media addicts. We all, at many times, have a vested interest in impacting another person through expression. The only question is: Are you going to make a point or render yourself pointless?

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