Some learnings from being a public speaker

Many years ago, in 1998 to be precise, I was Compensation Manager for a subsidiary of France Telecom. You can’t imagine more French than that 😉 !

One day, a colleague rushed into a panic to my office and said : “Sandrine, do you speak English ? We have received a call in Payroll but no-one understands what this is about and we were barely able to say “Wait, please” ! We need you !”

So I went to the payroll office, where 6 colleagues were eagerly waiting for someone to help them understand what was going on.

It turns out it was a conference organiser who wanted to  investigate which topics were of interest in the C&B sphere of the telecoms industry at the time. At the end of the conversation, she asked me if I would like to present one of these topics at the conference.

I was 27 years old with only 4 years of work experience. I had never spoken at an external event, not even a local networking one. My language of work was, well you guessed it, French at the time.

So the thought of going to London and deliver a presentation to an audience of native English speakers was exciting and scary at the same time.

I spent a massive amount of time researching my topic, preparing my slides and rehearsing, memorising the flow of my presentation and the transitions between the ideas.

Then “The Day” came : a quick Eurostar ride later, I was in London.

I was speaking in the middle of the session but would have much preferred to go first, because my nerves were getting the best of me.

I don’t think I heard anything that the speaker before me said, because my heart was pounding so hard that its noise was filling my ears – and I’m pretty sure the people sitting next to me were hearing it drum too !

But then the chairman introduced me, I stood up, walked to the stand and the miracle happened.

The second I started speaking, I forgot my worries about my French accent, whether the delegates would find me too inexperienced and not qualified to address them, if my topic would really be relevant to a British audience not a French one….

All of a sudden, I was excited and happy to be on stage and have a chance to share ideas with the audience and hear what they had to say. Words were flowing easily – those who know me won’t be surprised by that 😉

Time flew by and it felt like only 5 minutes had passed by the time I ended my one-hour session.

At the break and during the rest of the conference, some of the delegates came to see me and discuss some of the points I had raised, or to tell me they had enjoyed my presentation.

And I just knew that I had to be a speaker again !

The heart-pounding, the preparation, the stress… it was all well worth it. Thankfully, the overall feedback from the delegates was good so the organisers invited me to speak at further HR conferences they were promoting.

Since then, I have never stopped, and now do public speaking multiple times a year in local and international conferences or as a paid speaker for internal meetings at other companies.

I have learned a lot. Not just about how to focus my research and structure presentations, or how to create slides that won’t distract from your speaking, or how to behave on stage to establish a connection with the audience, and also how to not be paralysed before a high-stakes event.

My heart does not beat in fear any longer, it beats in anticipation and excitment when I get to the stage and it is a great feeling.

Most importantly, the speaking has taught me how to manage to deadlines, how to get my point across and present a convincing argument to the audience that will help them make a difference in their organisation.

My regular readers know how much I care about communication skills for Compensation managers. I believe we need to move out of the “geeky”, technical aspect of our jobs in order to elevate ourselves to true partners to the business – speaking their language and explaining how our designs can help them achieve their objectives. I am glad that by going out and presenting in front of other companies, I learned how to better convince colleagues and senior management at my organisation.

What is my lesson here ?

I don’t mean to say that every one of you should go out and become public speakers. Most people are really not made for it, and that’s alright.

But everyone should try to do something that takes them out of their comfort zone, that will stretch their boundaries and make their heart beat a little – and that they also enjoy doing. In the process of practising, you will learn not only to master this new skill, but also multiple other things and you will become a more rounded person and professional overall.

I still love speaking, still learn techniques about story telling and presentation design. The bonus gift ? I discovered a few years ago that I am delighted when I teach and see people “get” new ideas. I am now formally putting this ability into designing and delivering workshops and coaching programs  – one more offering for the HR and Compensation community in the GCC 🙂

So who knows ? Maybe by stretching yourself, eventually you will branch out into something you didn’t expect. At the very least you will become a better HR/Compensation professional – and you’ll have fun along the way.

Want to share your out-of-comfort-zone-experience-turned-into-a-new-expertise ? Feel free to share in the comments !


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