Over the last 5 years I have been fortunate to have taught many classes both domestically and internationally. The following are just a few of the mistakes that I've made.
1) Having a "I've got this" attitude
It's so easy to think, "I've done this so many times, I've got it in the bag." Overconfidence can ambush you when you least expect it. The rule of thumb is to prepare a minimum of two hours for every hour that you'll be speaking. I think this is good advice. One time when I was hired to speak to a large group of professionals I was given material that was pretty new to me. I looked it over once and decided that I was going to do just fine. When I got in front of 35 people, the material looked far more intimidating than when I was casually flipping through it the night before.
2) Partying the night before showtime
Of course we all know better than to drink and stay up late the night before a big event, right? This situation can sneak up on you as it did to me several years ago. I was giving a 2-day talk to the leaders of a globally known company. The talk went extremely well on the first day and they invited me to an employee social planned for later that evening. I figured that this was going to be quiet dinner and that it would be a good opportunity to get to know some of the folks on a first name basis.
It turned out that it was a very loud event with a DJ playing loud music with free flowing alcohol. What got me into trouble was not the alcohol (I didn't finish my one glass of wine). The music was so loud that I had to shout to be heard and had to be shouted at in order to hear. By the time I got back to the hotel, I had a splitting headache and my throat was raw from yelling. The next morning, I found it very hard to concentrate on my presentation and could barely speak audibly. Lesson learned: do not party the night before an important event no matter how innocuous you think it's going to be. Don't take any chances. You want to be at your physical and emotional best when you're in front of your audience.
3) Not rehearsing your examples
Good examples bring abstract ideas to life. Immediately after stating a principle such as the value of "Decentralized decision making" it's important to back it up with good examples. For this particular principle I ask my audience to imagine that they are in Afghanistan's mountainous battle front. "You are with a squad of 10 solders and you begin taking heavy fire. Now imagine having to get approval from headquarters before you can return fire." Everyone can empathize how ridiculous this would seem.
Having a good set of appropriate stories as examples to illustrate abstract concepts takes preparation. I've been embarrassed more than once when I've tried to think of an example on my feet and then realized that it really wasn't a very good example. I find that the best examples are the ones that I've personally experienced and can retell with clarity, emotion and little effort. Human beings are hardwired to pay attention to stories; especially, stories that have an emotional dimension to them. The story about the squad in the front lines of war resonated with me. Even though I haven't personally experienced war, I've been on the front line in my imagination and could definitely appreciate having the authority to make instantaneous decisions. The thought of getting on a noisy and unreliable communication system to explain my situation to a superior and get his/her permission seems absurd, dangerous and ineffective. The example really drives home the power of empowering the folks on the front line with tough decisions that have to be made instantly and frequently.
4) Not warming up your voice
I was recently co-teaching a SPC class in a room that was shallow and wide without the aid of a microphone. Soon after introducing myself to the class of 34 students a person at the back of the room lifted their hand. I was puzzled as to what they might want to ask about my background. To my disappointment, they weren't interested in my background at all. They yelled, "I can't hear anything you're saying." Yikes! How embarrassing.
After that incident, I made a concerted effort to consciously speak louder which also placed a lot of stress on my face and vocal chords. To my surprise, there were students that still couldn't hear me well at certain angles. The audibility was further exacerbated by the room's ventilation system that kicked in every 15 minutes with a low grade humming noise.
On that day I resolved to improve my volume and level of articulation by whatever means possible. I scoured the internet for insight into how others have overcome the problem of being too quiet. To my delight, I came across a set of video clips of the voice warmup routines of Britain's National Theater actors. I learned how professional stage actors must perform in front of a thousand people in an amphitheater. I began practicing a 15 minute routine before every teaching session and the difference was night and day. Even I could hear the difference in my resonance, articulation and clarity.
You can follow along with the actors performing their voice warmups and see what a difference it make.
5) Showing up just before showtime
This is one of those easy-to-get-right tasks that I have gotten wrong more than once. It's so easy to forget Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This is an immutable law. The law is especially unforgiving if you've never been to the venue before. I find it useful to have a checklist. But a checklist is only useful if you have the time to run through the list. Here's a partial pre-flight checklist that takes about 5 minutes to execute:
- Plug-in the laptop
- Bring up the projector and screen
- Plug-in the presentation pointer and slide advancer
- Bring up the presentation and test the pointer
- Test the microphone audio
- Test the room audio with the computer audio jack
- Run one of the movies for 10 seconds
If at all possible, get to the venue the day before and set up the room to your liking. Find out where the bathrooms and the break rooms are. Introduce yourself to the admin and figure out where lunch and snacks will be placed.
My belief is that there are enough things that go wrong even when you fully prepare in advance, so why tempt fait by winging it.
-Armond Mehrabian, SPCT
Let me know what you think.