So, there I was – age 19 dressed in a bright red sweatshirt, scruffy jeans and a pair of red boots, on the stage of the University of Edinburgh’s prestigious Graduation Hall. Everyone around me on the stage was wearing formal clothes – suits, academic gowns, fancy robes. In front of me was a sea of expectant faces – probably a couple of hundred people. I was on my way to the microphone. To speak to them. And I didn’t know what I was going to say.
It was my first experience of public speaking. I was about to address the new intake of students on behalf of the Students’ Association at the University’s formal enrolment event. I had been running around super busy organizing all sorts of other welcome events in the days running up to the ceremony. I hadn’t made time to think about it or prepare anything to say. To be honest, I was probably avoiding it – public speaking wasn’t top of the list of things I liked doing.
But the time had come. All these people were looking at me, the microphone was waiting. I needed to say something. I stepped forward – and started speaking.
I opened up by admitting my nerves. I drew attention to the one thing I thought I would want to hide. And as I did, I made a connection. I remembered my first day – not at University, but at school.
I had been a late enrolment to primary (elementary) school. Our family had moved mid-year. Everyone else already had 6 months under their belts, and I was just starting. They all looked so self-assured and comfortable, and I felt so scared and uncomfortable. Even at age 5 I could feel the differences.
Standing on that stage, I remembered what it had been like to be in a strange place, with people I didn’t know, and to not know what was going to happen. I remembered how bad it felt, so that’s what I spoke about. I talked about how it had got better, about the friends I made (and still have to this day) and how (mostly) people just wanted to help.
Then I talked about when I’d moved from school to University, and how scary that had been. I shared some of the ways I’d made new friends in those early days, how I got to grips with the new environment and some of the fun I’d had along the way.
It wasn’t planned, but it was genuine. I spoke from the heart, not the head. And it made an impact. I saw people watching me and starting to smile. I noticed looks of recognition flash across people’s faces. I saw shoulders visibly relax.
Now, I don’t advise going into a formal presentation or speaking engagement without preparing – in fact, I shudder with horror looking back now. But what I do recommend is being genuine, speaking from the heart, allowing your emotions to show.
We are told that telling stories engages people. And that’s true, but what I find engages people even more, however – and builds really strong connections – is when our stories are genuine, when we share our own experiences, and sometimes our own vulnerabilities. When we give a little bit of ourselves.
It worked for me that day and it’s something I’ve returned to recently, with great results. It’s as true for day to day conversations as for formal presentations. Why not give it a try and see where it takes you. And when you do, let me know how you get on.