man holding a microphone
PHOTO: Medy Siregar | unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about marketing operations' role and importance within the marketing department. My article last month, "CMOs: Your Marketing Ops Team Is a Secret Weapon," clearly struck a nerve. Thanks to everyone who commented, reached out and shared the article. Your feedback has sparked some interesting and ongoing conversations.

Why Presenting Is a Marketing Requirement

One of those ongoing conversations has been about the skills required in marketing operations and in particular the soft skills. A recent LinkedIn post about preparing for a career in marketing from David Lewis of BDO Digital caught my eye, in part because I’d just had a conversation with a marketing professor at a prestigious university who was completely unaware of the role technology plays in marketing. The post and its more than 200 comments are great reading, but the one recommendation that jumped out at me was: “Take a drama class and learn about giving presentations and the art of storytelling.”

The ability to present well is extremely important in today's environment — it’s the only way to communicate big ideas and strategy. Some might suggest you can write and share your ideas as an alternative, to which I’d respond: how many times has it become clear that the recipient of one of your emails a) only scanned it, b) only read the first paragraph, c) didn’t look at your attachment or d) never read it at all?

Like it or not we need to be good oral communicators. That’s just the baseline. In our noisy world having a public persona is really helpful for career growth. One part of developing a public persona is speaking through webinars, conferences and podcasts. So easy, right? Speak well and often, internally and publicly. 

Turns out it’s not so easy.

Glossophobia Is Common, But Surmountable

Last week I was talking with Frans Riemersma of MarTech Tribe about this. He asked if I thought the majority of marketing operations professionals were introverts and if so, did I think that presenting internally and speaking publicly was a challenge for this community? My sense is yes, we are a community of mostly introverts, and so public speaking doesn’t come easy. But I’m less sure about the introvert — public speaking connection. It’s possible to be an introvert and be comfortable speaking in public, I have first-hand knowledge of that. However, fear of public speaking is incredibly common and depending on where you look, affects 40% to 75% of the population. It even has a name, Glossophobia. Given that, telling marketers they should speak up, present and speak publicly will only generate anxiety for a large portion of our marketing operations community.

I’m an introvert and I’m comfortable speaking publicly. In fact, my co-founder frequently says I’ve never seen a microphone that I didn’t want to speak into.

It wasn’t always that way. In high school I’d write a 10-page paper to avoid a five-minute oral presentation. I even declined being the valedictorian of my class because it meant giving a public presentation. In my senior year of college my professor who was on the board of the Virginia Psychological Association asked me to consider presenting my senior project on self-hypnosis at their annual meeting, alongside others who were presenting their masters and doctoral projects. I was one of two undergraduates who would be presenting. I agreed and then spent the next nine months filled with anxiety about delivering the presentation. In the end the presentation went well, but it was when I learned the phrase “my knees were knocking” is a real thing (thank goodness I had a podium to stand behind). Presentation adventures and mis-adventures have followed, including when I presented to over a thousand people in Beijing in the 1990s with the news media present. My translator literally ran from the room in the middle of my presentation. I of course did what any western presenter would do — I just spoke louder in ENGLISH. Turns out he had a nose bleed, but at the time it felt like a bad anxiety dream — I still wonder what made it onto the news that night.

For many years, even though I accepted that public speaking was a key part of my job I'd be anxiety ridden the night before any presentation and nervous right up until I started speaking on stage. Today, I’m no longer anxious and most of the time don’t have any nerves about speaking. In fact, more times than not, I look forward to speaking.

Related Article: Public Speaking Without the Sweats: A Speaker's Guide

Tips to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

My journey to enjoying public speaking started with Peggy Noonan’s book "On Speaking Well." Noonan was President Reagan’s speechwriter and is a frequent guest on the Sunday political shows. She also feared public speaking. Her book is so relatable and full of useful tips, which I still use today.

Some other things that have served me well along the way:

  • Start speaking as you approach the podium to avoid that “ta dah” moment, which can be terrifying. 
  • Be at peace with garbled words. If you mangle a sentence or word or even a paragraph, acknowledge it and keep going. By telling the audience you are having trouble stringing words together that particular day, you give everyone permission to roll with it. I recently joined Rich Hein and Dom Nicastro on the CX Decoded Podcast and I couldn’t for the life of me say the word “proliferation.” The more I tried the worse it got and we all ended up laughing. I don’t know if they edited it out but it was a perfect example of what we just can’t control.
    I had a colleague who once delivered his 40-minute presentation at a customer conference in less than 10 minutes. It was something to behold. I have never seen anyone speak that fast before or since. He couldn’t do anything to fix that session but at the next conference he strolled on stage with a banjo and started his talk with a song. Guess what everyone remembers the most?
  • If you are really stressed about a particular presentation, script it. Once it’s scripted read it out loud twice a day starting the week before your presentation and right before you go to sleep the night before you present. You won’t need the script on the day, and will feel calmer when you step up to present.
  • NEVER go on stage without a drink — it’s a great prop.  Reaching for a drink is an acceptable way to take a break and calm down in a presentation. It will appear completely natural to your audience.
  • Internalize that most of the audience is impressed that you are up on the stage or in front of the room. They are rooting for you. Find someone who is nodding or smiling to focus on while you are giving your presentation. 
  • If you are delivering a small group presentation — engage your audience with simple questions like “does this make sense?” “does this resonate with you?” “what’s been your experience?” Just because you are the presenter you don’t have to do all the talking. In a larger audience setting you can always pose a question and ask for a show of hands to engage your audience.
  • Keep your presentation simple. If you are a nervous presenter don’t increase your anxiety by adding animations to your deck.
  • If you are doing a Q&A session and don’t know an answer, saying you don’t know is perfectly acceptable. If it is a question that you should know the answer to you can just respond with, “I need to look at that, let’s connect after the session.” 
  • Frequency is the single most impactful element in overcoming fear of speaking in public. The more you do the easier it gets.

For the Reluctant: Ease Your Way Into Public Speaking

If you’ve read this far and are still thinking “there’s still no chance I’m speaking in public” or “none of this is helpful — I hate presenting,” then my suggestions are as follows:

  • Take a course or hire a presentation coach or join something like Toastmasters (a friend leveraged this to great advantage).
  • Try and architect your internal presentations where possible so that you can collaborate with someone and present side-by-side. It’s always easier to share the burden.
  • If you want to develop a public persona and don’t want to speak, start by commenting on the tweets and LinkedIn posts from your industry peers or share their posts and tweets with colleagues and your network. Once you are comfortable with that you can expand to produce your own original content.
  • If you think you might want to give public speaking a try, start by moderating or participating in a panel discussion. The advantage to being the moderator is you can prep your questions, have them in hand and your role is to just ask questions. The downside is you are the focal point for the panel and “always on.” If you are just starting out, being a panelist is the way to go. It’s OK to insist your panel moderator shares the questions they are going to ask you ahead of time so you can prepare. In these environments your total speaking time is likely to be only 10 to 15 minutes.

Like it or not, we all need to have some basic presentation skills in order to succeed in marketing and marketing operations. How far you want to take those skills is up to you. If you want to give public speaking a try, just reach out to me — I’ll work with you on a panel!