Watching the Winter Olympics last year, I saw a sport that is applicable to the art of speaking. It involves daring, and a lot of nerve – the Skeleton. Simply put, you ride a sled down a hill, head-first, on your belly, at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.
I assume it’s called Skeleton because that may be all that’s left of you if you wipe out.
American John Daly entered the 4th of four runs down the hill in 4th place, one spot from a bronze medal. He was determined to get that medal because, as he said, “I don’t know if I’ll be back in four years [for the next Olympics]. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got on this last run”
And he did. To begin a Skeleton run, the sled is put in a groove that’s about 10 yards long. This allows the rider to get a running start, build up speed, and hop on the sled, all the while maintaining a straight line down the hill.
As Daly started his run, he got up to speed, and just as he was ready to jump on the sled, it popped out of the groove. This is a disaster because, there are no re-starts. You have to keep going. Daly lost control, and experienced a very bumpy ride most of the way down the hill. All hope for a medal was lost in those first few seconds.
What does this have to do with giving a speech? More than you think. Two days after that event, I was chatting with my friend Bill, a speaker. He said, “Mike, I’m struggling to get my speaking to a higher level, so I make a real connection with the audience.”
Bill is a very good presenter. He’s likable, knowledgable, and….fairly intense. He added, “I just want to help people.”
That last sentence made me think of John Daly. “Bill, what you just said reminds me of this Olympic athlete I just saw. He was so intent on winning that he pushed his sled right off the rails at the beginning of his event. He was out of the running before he ever got started.
Is it possible you want to connect so badly that your intensity is off-putting to the audience? They like you, they realize you have good material, but you may be starting off too strongly when you are speaking.”
After a brief silence, Bill said, “You know, I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I do come on too strong. I just want to help so badly.”
I suggested, “Try toning down your enthusiasm in the beginning of your speech. Let the audience get conformable, get to know you for a few minutes before you turn up the energy.”
Did this work for Bill? Absolutely. Just like riding the skeleton, Bill improved his bond with the audience by toning down his intensity. He now stays “in the groove” and takes his audience on much smoother rides.
As you prepare your next presentation, think about Bill, and John Daly. Remember that, if you want to bring home the prize, it’s important to get off to a smooth start and not knock yourself off the rails in the first few seconds.