Public Speaking Tips for Humility
Tips for humility and Public Speaking?
When everyone is striving to feel more competent and confident as a Public Speaker, why would one focus on humility?
There is a quote, variously attributed that says:
“Pride is the only disease known to man that makes everyone sick except the one who has it”
In itself, this is a wonderfully constructed rhetorical phrase, because like many rhetorical phrases it plays on the shift of meaning of words in order to make the listener stop, smile, and reflect on the actual meaning of the phrase.
In rhetorical terms, the listener hears the phrase, registers the play on words, stops, and asks themselves:
‘Sorry, play that again! Did I hear that right?’
And that is a great way to get a message to stick in the mind.
The sentence is a clear and definitive statement on pride, but it is the slight shift in the meaning of ‘sick’ that charms us and makes a recurring impression. Normally disease makes one sick, but in this statement ‘sick’ carries more of the meaning of ‘annoyed’ or ‘frustrated’ rather than ‘ill’ and this twist of meaning allows us to enjoy the paradox that rather than the person with the disease becoming ‘sick’ – in fact they remain fine, oblivious even – it is everyone else that suffers.
Humility is a very important characteristic for a speaker, particularly if you are trying to win an audience over to your point of view without haranguing them.
‘No one likes a smarty pants’ on ‘No one likes to be lectured’
suggest that a speaker who talks down to their audience is not going to be appreciated.
I like to remind speakers that the very act of standing up to speak puts you in a position of potential arrogance because you have taken it on yourself to suggest that what you are about to say is worth listening to!
Many of the best speakers will either literally say or at least imply:
‘I am just like you.
‘I make mistakes.’
‘I am not suggesting that I know better…..but’
There is a reason why so many politicians, whom we hated when they were in politics turn out to be charming and relatable once they have finished their political careers,
because it is in the nature of politics
(i) not to be able to admit that you are unsure
(because if you are not 100% sure, that might mean that the other point of view might be right)
I made a very interesting discovery while I was studying music in the former German Democratic Republic.
As it was a one-party system, it seemed impossible for any member of the government to acknowledge any failings, because that would suggest there could be other strategies and therefore, in turn, that might suggest the need for other opposition political parties.
My brother-in-law, who was a manager of one of the state bakeries in East Germany and a trusted member of the party (which you had to be in order to be allowed to be a manager) made a suggestion on how to improve some aspect of production. It was a suggestion made with the best intentions for the benefit of everyone. Unfortunately, it was thrown back and his loyalty was questioned, because if he was suggesting that things could be improved, that would suggest that they were not already optimum, which suggested that the party had not got everything right.
(ii) not to be able to change your mind
(because that would suggest that not only were you wrong before, but that you could not be trusted to change your mind and be wrong again)
(iii) not to be able to express a personal opinion that differs from the rest of the party
(because that would suggest disunity and potential chaos)
Therefore one of the main turn-offs for us as audience is that these people come across as conceited and lacking humility.
And if you want to win me over, a good place to start is by not claiming or pretending to be ‘better’ than I am.
10 tips for displaying humility
Avoid excessive self-promotion
And immediately you see one of the problems that politicians have!
Politicians need to be in semi-permanent campaigning mode – for the reasons given above, which means they are always telling us how they were right, how they knew everything before it happened, how they would do it better than the other party - that gets everything wrong.
As a basic presentation skills principle, I remind speakers that the audience is more important than they are and that the only reason the audience is interested in the speaker at all is to be reassured that the speaker is in a position to be able to help them. Once I have enough reassurance, I don’t need to hear any more.
When a speaker introduces themselves to the audience with the purpose of reassuring the audience that they are qualified to share their opinion - that is appreciated by the audience.
When the speaker keeps on listing all the wonderful things they are and has done, that begins to aggravate the audience.
If I am having problems communicating with my children, I want to know firstly that you have children yourself, so that you can empathise with my situation.
I would then like to understand that your relationship with your children was not always the best (because that might make me feel better about myself and reassure me that you understand my situation) and that what you are sharing with me is what you have learned from your own hard-won experience.
Give me personal examples that I can relate to. Provide me with simple pictures that show me the steps that you went through and what you have learned so that I can follow that same path too.
Only one idiot in the room
If there is going to be an idiot in the room, make sure it is you!
I will learn better from hearing how you learned something, rather than being told what I should learn.
Firstly, by learning from what you learned, you are showing me you also needed to learn and secondly, I will feel less attacked if you seem to be sharing your experience rather than instructing me.
My children are perfect because I have been a brilliant father (joking, joking!)
However if they had shown good manners or excellent behaviour when they were much younger, I would always give the credit to my wife’s influence (even though I think it was mostly down to me – still joking – but not as much as before!)
If you give credit to others, the audience is more likely to give credit to you.
If you take all the credit, the audience is more likely to try to take some of that credit back.
However how many sports interviews have you heard where the match winner simply says:
‘It was all down to the team. I just put the ball in the net.’
It is a balance, so try to…
Avoid false modesty
Probably the best response to someone offering you a compliment is simply to say:
There is always the temptation to become all self-deprecating:
‘I was just lucky. It was a mistake actually.’
And like the sports interview, although you are making the sounds of humility, it does not always ring completely true.
One of the best characteristics of a speaker is to come across as open and genuine.
Humility suggests you are able to show a complete picture of yourself and that you are not hiding or pretending.
Therefore if one of my children had shown good manners or excellent behaviour, I would still give the credit to my wife’s influence, but I might suggest that I also had some part in it.
Laugh (at yourself)
Humour can be a great way of breaking down barriers and because a funny story is memorable, it ticks all the boxes of #3 above in creating clear and relatable pictures.
As long as the butt of the joke is you, you are on safe ground.
Showing that you can laugh at yourself will also show a level of humility and if there is a lesson in the story, the audience can laugh and choose to learn the same lesson without it being forced on to them.
If the butt of the joke is someone else, that can easily tumble into judgment or even victimisation.
In this case, I am not just referring to the stories you share, but also to how you share them.
Most of us are still caught up in trying to be ‘brilliant’ when we deliver our presentation and that might be a little too much about you and not enough about your audience. You don’t need to be ‘brilliant’, you just need to be clear and competent. A presentation should not be too much of a performance and sometimes you will make mistakes! Acknowledge them and move on. Everyone makes mistakes and to be able to acknowledge them suggests a depth of confidence in yourself or your subject. Someone who refuses to acknowledge a mistake – or still worse – immediately looks for someone or something else to blame comes across as defensive and less sure.
We rather than I
Various social experiments on the frequency of words used in conversation usually conclude that the most used word is ‘I’: I, I, I, me, me, me.
which quite literally sounds very self-centred.
If you are leading a team, can you replace ‘I’ with ‘we’ a few times?
And if you are sharing an experience or suggesting an approach, could you replace ‘I’ with ‘you’, so that the audience knows you are seeing things from their perspective?
The key to every presentation is the message you want to deliver at the end.
If the focus of the presentation is always on the message, then the presentation is not in danger of being all about ‘you’.
Therefore there is less danger of coming across as superior.
If the message is clear to me then I will realise that even though you are talking about yourself, it is not all about you, it is actually about me.
Keep your eyes off yourself
Share rather than instruct