Coach's Corner - Public Speaking

By Andrew DiMeo | 7 minute read

A peek into the private Slack channel here at Trig reveals a recent discussion among the team around an upcoming speaking engagement. It was fun to see the advice from some of the more seasoned members.  Some of the feedback included:

  • Everyone who is watching wants the presenter to succeed. (Comforting, right?)
  • People won't know what you forgot to say or were supposed to say.
  • Find at least one person who is smiling and "into" your presentation, and talk to them.
  • If you get nervous, wiggle your toes in your shoes - no one will ever see.
  • I get stressed trying to remember everything I want to say. It helps me to flip the perspective. Rather than trying to impress people by what I know, it calms me down to instead focus on providing helpful information that will make their lives better. From there, I focus on memorizing what i want to say at the transitions between slides and let what happens in-between be more freestyle.
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I loved this discussion and learned some tips here that I'll certainly use next time I speak publicly.  We would all love to see more comments from the community at the end of this Tangent. The final quote of the slack discussion was this: "Dr DiMeo is such a great speaker, he's able to weave in funny commentary that interacts with the audience"

Apparently Slack doesn't come equipped with a "humbled" or "shy" Emoji.

I guess I'm an OK speaker these days. What my family can attest to is how extremely shy I was as a young child. I was so shy, that at family gatherings I'd retreat to underneath the dining table, hidden by the long tablecloth, until everyone left. I refused to participate in most public things like school recitals and performances out of great fear of any sort of attention. By the time I was a senior in College, I was that student who would totally freeze during a presentation.

Most of the lessons I've learned along the way are from reflections of playing baseball and working in motion picture set design, translated to coaching baseball, and teaching design.

Fear is fun - The Mental Game of Baseball and Chasing Mavericks
I started coaching baseball when my son was 6-years old. Wanting to do a good job, I read several books on coaching including Coaching Youth Baseball the Ripken Way, Toughness: Developing True Strength on and Off the Court, any many more. My favorite was The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance.

The Mental Game is packed with lessons, but one central theme stood out to me.  Being nervous is normal. As a kid, I used to think that baseball players had nerves of steel to walk up to the plate with the whole world watching. Truth is, even the best MLB players in the world are nervous walking up to that plate. Thinking on it more, actually flipped it to "Fun." In fact, the most nerve-racking moments in sports are the ones we dream of. Kids in sandlots all over the world enact the scene, "Bottom of the 9th, down by 3 runs with 2 outs... 0 and 2 count... And the pitch... It's a long fly ball, deep into center field... and IT'S GONE!!!" I would listen to athletes in all kinds of sports give pre-game interviews going into major events like the World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, Final Four, etc. They are all nervous. They are all living for that moment. A child's dream becoming reality.

These are the lessons passed on to my son and his team. One day, he and I were watching the movie Chasing Mavericks, the true story of Jay Moriarity, a teenager who surfed one of the tallest waves in history. There's a scene where Jay and his coach are practicing holding their breath while diving, when a shark swims over them. Jay looses his cool and swims up for air. Later, his coach asks him what happened and he responds, "I was afraid." His coach responds, "Yeah, well fear is healthy... panic is dangerous." That was in 2012, and Drew and I still talk about it to this day.

Putting the lessons from The Mental Game and Mavericks together, I started saying to the kids on the team and students in the classroom, "Fear is Fun."

Think for a minute about what you do for fun. Some people watch scary movies. Some like to drive fast.  Some like to go sky diving. Some like to play sports. Some like to act on stage. I think a lot of us seek fear inducing activities to elicit fun. It is the panic that makes us forget our lines. If we can embrace the "Fear is Fun" mentality when giving a public address, we might just find that we enjoy it.

 Baseball Boys

Pressure - The Pop Fly Versus the At Bat
Panic can be induced by pressure. The biggest lesson I learned from Cal Ripken is his message that children are inherently competitive. If you leave children alone at the baseball field, and all the parents are gone, they will start a competitive game. If you tell kids to jog to the fence and back, they will find it boring, but if you tell them to race to the fence and back, they'll do it over and over again, and ask to do it again to see who might win next time. A lot of coaches use the inherent joy of competition as a training and exercise aid. Kids love to win. When they lose, they want to run again, to try and win the next time. It's when parents and coaches create pressure to win, that things go downhill.

Playing ball myself as a kid, I was known for two things: not being able to catch a fly ball and being the number 4 hitter.  For those that like baseball... that means playing Right Field. I didn't realize it as a kid, good fielding meant catching 99 out of 100 fly balls, while good hitting meant getting 3 hits for every 10 tries. It was simply the pressure to make the catch that made me "choke" during the play.  It was the accepted failure rate of hitting that made me swing freely for the fences.

As a scientist, engineer, and designer, one lesson I learned along the way is that there's no one right answer to anything. Everything is a theory. Even Einstein's Relativity is a theory. In Physics I learned about light being described by Wave Theory and Particle Theory.

As a coach and a teacher, I found an infinite number of theories and opinions on both subjects. So, when standing in front of the classroom, this humbled me. I could tell the students, "This process of design is the best I have today..." and go on with the lecture. Even better was the mode of continuous improvement and lifelong learning that resulted from the attitude of not knowing all there is to know about baseball, design, or anything. Connecting these dots (healthy competition and everything is a theory) took the pressure off public speaking. I don't need to panic about getting it all right, when there's nothing right to get. It freed me to openly talk about my scholarship to audiences from 3 to 3000 with no pressure to perform.

Showing Emotion - Making a Connection and the Vince Vaughn Scene
One of my most vivid memories working in the NYC Motion Picture Industry was filming a scene with a young Vince Vaughn in Return To Paradise. The scene was emotionally charged, and every time the director shouted, "Cut!" - the camera would stop rolling, the sound would stop recording, and Vaughn would start crying; real emotional tears. It would take several minutes for him to settle down, reset, go through a makeup touchup, before being ready for another take.

We didn't do that many takes because the scene was so emotionally draining for all of us involved, cast and crew.  I learned a lot about good actors, and how hard they work to show real emotion. Regardless of your opinion of Vince Vaughn today, he's had a successful career and in my opinion, was a great actor that day.

The more real the emotions are... the more real the tears are... the more the audience can connect to the scene. I think showing emotions creates connections. Whether a passionate soldier leading troops into battle, coaches on the sidelines of a sport, actors on stage, down to one on one conversations with family members and loved ones... Showing emotions is a connector. Hiding or shielding emotions can, on the other hand, be a barrier. Most of us are familiar with uninspiring presentations and boring teachers. I might say things like, "She seemed like a robot." or, "It's like he doesn't even have a personality."

I realized that a little quiver in the voice, or a bead of sweat on the forehead, or a moment of silence while searching for my next word, and that fear on my face visible to all... is something an actor is working so hard to elicit. I realized that if I was comfortable with just letting the audience see all of those true emotions in me, it would bring us closer together. That connection with our audience... That's what we want.

 
 Microphone
 

8 Mile - What Rap Battles Taught Me
I was working on the oral defense for my PhD Dissertation, the most important presentation of my life to that date, and needed a break. Recharge time is movie time, and I serendipitously chose 8 Mile, a film featuring Eminem acting as a young rapper struggling to make it big. The core of the movie is centered on rap battles, where two rappers go head to head on stage, each attacking the other with lyrics. The crowd is the judge, and the more confident rappers tend to freeze the losers who have nothing left to say.

Of course, the Eminem character would lose a lot throughout the film. When the pressure was off, he was a genius, and when put to the test, he would fail. In the final, climactic rap battle, Eminem takes a different approach. He makes fun of himself. What follows is our protagonist brutally exposing himself, including his biggest weaknesses, to the crowd. His rap is incredible and the fans love it. More importantly, he doesn't leave his opponent anything left to rap about in retaliation, and goes on to win the big one.

This would be my tactic going into the oral defense.  Ensure all of the limitations, assumptions, and any weaknesses in the research are clearly articulated as part of the presentation. PhD Oral Defenses are sometimes known for a committee of professors grilling the candidate for hours in a closed session.  Family and friends wait for the tired and stressed student to emerge, only to wait longer for the verdict to be given. My experience was entirely different. I didn't leave the committee much to grill me on, and the closed session lasted maybe 15 minutes. It was stress free.

As the years went on, I had the opportunity to be in front of venture capitalists in an effort to raise $2Million in financing for a medical device start-up.  Investors are also known for picking entrepreneurs apart during a pitch. The tactic worked there too. And then I realized, it wasn't a tactic at all, but rather, good practice.

Investors are looking for reasons to say no. If you have warts, and you hide them, they'll find them.  These people particularly appreciate honesty. Investments are long term relationships... as are real life, long term relationships, such as with a spouse. So, whether giving a dissertation defense, pitching a startup, or getting to know another person, honesty goes a long way. At the end of the day, it is really about being genuine.

From then on, whenever I started a new class with a fresh crop of students, I introduce myself first by welcoming them into the classroom by playing Lose Yourself.

Health & Happiness for All
Andrew