Today more talks than ever before are being recorded, posted online and living in the ether of the internet for all eternity. This makes how you deliver your speech much more high stakes now, than in the past, because gone are the days when you could perform a keynote speech, give a short lecture or even run-off a quick staff update with the knowledge that “what happens in the room, stays in the room”. No more. Now, what happens in the room can be aired for the entire human race to see, in real-time.

Anyone who is looking you up online could stumble upon that keynote that you delivered in Singapore two months ago at the sales conference where you said 274 “ums” in 20 minutes and lost your voice because you over-rehearsed it the night before. Or through a few more clicks, people could find that interview you gave with the local television station where you gave terse, one-word answers with a blank look on your face and fidgeted nervously with your fingers the whole time.

Don’t be one of the many people who I seem to meet on a daily basis, who tell me that they haven’t spent much time preparing for their talk, but that they’ll “wing it” and they’ll be just fine. Don’t be one of those people who spends 98% of your preparation time on getting your slides glossy and beautiful and only 2% on preparing your delivery. And, whatever you do, PUUUULLLEEEAAASSE! don’t be one of those people who leads with your ego, shrugging your shoulders and saying that you don’t need to rehearse your high stakes talk because you have been speaking for the past 25 years and you know what you’re doing.

Could you imagine any other performing artist (because yes, Dear Reader, public speaking is a performing art) including dancers, musicians or actors saying any of the above about their performances? People like Yo-Yo Ma, for example, saying: “Naw, I don’t need to practice for my performance at La Scala because I have been playing the cello for over 25 years and I know what I am doing”.

No, of course not!

But why is it different for public speaking? Why is it ok to deliver sub-par presentations? Why is ok to fail?

I am here to tell you that it’s not ok, especially now that your talks could be recorded and aired for instant viewing online. Doing a bad job on your presentation these days, could cost you your reputation, your credibility and your dignity. A high price to pay for being lazy or for allowing your ego to get in the way.

I had a close run-in with this terrifying prospect myself a few years ago and that’s why I am so passionate about this subject.

It was the fall of 2017 and I was preparing to deliver my first ever TEDx speech. Man! I worked hard to get ready. Eight iterations of my script, three months of preparation and 145 rehearsals later, I arrived on stage in front of a live audience of 500 people. I was dressed to the nines and I delivered my speech just like I had rehearsed it (except for the addition of the 18 times I had to adjust my head-microphone because it was slipping off my ear). After the talk, I walked off stage feeling…”Meh!”. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Moving through the apero area after the talk where the audience and the speakers were mingling, I felt it again. I measure the success of my speaking engagements by how many people come up to talk with me afterwards and only two people (out of 500!) spoke to me over the wine and cheese. Something was definitely wrong…

Fast forward four weeks and I had put the experience behind me, until I received an email from the event’s organizers announcing that the talks were now on the TEDx platform online. “Yay!” I thought, “I can’t wait to see it”. I clicked on the talk and watched it with greedy anticipation. Right away, I began to see what was wrong with it. Besides seeing the excessive fixing of my head-microphone, I noticed that I looked like a pushy actor, over-delivering every word and every movement. I cringed inside, held my breath and went numb. Adding to my discomfort, I made the grave mistake of reading the comments underneath the video (I will never, ever, ever do this again). BAM! A virtual fist-punch to my gut. The power of the hateful words I read by anonymous strangers, literally knocked me down. I ended up on the floor of my kitchen in a pile of oozing self-pity.

I felt horrible. I had a non-stop, painful dialog with myself: “How can I call myself an expert at public speaking when I have a performance like this?” “My reputation as a speaker is destroyed so I might as well throw in the towel and stop speaker coaching now, because I am not good enough”, and on and on and on. I felt sorry for myself for two weeks until serendipitously, I found something that helped me to snap out of the 24-hour pity-party I was having with my ego.

An amazing book by Patsy Rodenburg called Presence, broke the spell. (Thank you Patsy!) Her illustrious book described many things, including something she calls the first, second and third circles of presence. These are states of performance energy. People who perform in the “first circle of presence” are introverts and direct their energy inwards, making themselves inaccessible to the audience; people who perform in the “third circle of presence” are extroverts, pushing their energy outwards and alienating the audience by overpowering them; finally, people who perform in the “second circle of presence” connect with the audience because their performance energy is “just right”.

Ha! There it was, in plain English. I had bombed my speech because I performed the whole damn thing in the third circle. Eureka!

I had the privilege of having my second TEDx speech a few months later, and my-oh-my! did I do things differently. Firstly, I realized that TEDx talks are FREAKIN’ HIGH STAKES TALKS. There is ZERO room for error. These talks will live on in the ether of the internet longer than my own lifetime, so I better switch-up my game. Secondly, I ditched my ego, which told me that I could do it by myself and instead invested in some first-rate instruction, enlisting the support of a fellow speaker coach whom I admire, to help give me perspective on my next performance. Thirdly, I started to walk-the-talk, living in the bliss of my knowledge about the three circles of presence and showing up to every Master Class I gave, every keynote I delivered and every future TEDx talk I performed in, IN THE SECOND CIRCLE. Yaaasssss!

The big lesson is that…

Folks, the right time is now! The stakes are simply too high in this digital day-and-age, for you to beat-around-the-bush and let either your laziness or your ego hold you back from improving how you speak in public. Work hard at preparing for your performances and work smart. Instead of thinking that you can do it all by yourself or that you are going to be fine with your D.I.Y approach to public speaking (see previous article), invest in the support that you need to get it right. Your reputation, your credibility and your dignity depend on it.


Laura Penn, Ph.D. is disrupting the status-quo for public speaking. As Founder and CEO of The Public Speaking School, award-winning international speaker, author and professional speaker coach, she empowers speakers on camera, in classrooms, in boardrooms and on stages around the world, to deliver the best talks of their lives.

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