Engineering safety and health solutions is important. But at the end of the day, the role of a safety professional is about communication. Whether you’re speaking to frontline workers, convincing a group of executives to approve a budget increase or talking to a group of your peers, your skills as a presenter could make or break your career. More importantly, those skills could mean the difference between life and death for the workers on your team.
That’s a lot of pressure, especially for emerging professionals. If you’re feeling the weight of it, you’re not alone. A famous study of American anxiety published in 1973 concluded that people are more afraid of public speaking than dying.
“I have found that most people are terrified of public speaking for one reason,” says J.A. Rodriguez Jr., CSP, SGE, global senior leader of Environmental, Health, Safety and Sustainability at Raytheon and Chairman of the Board at VPPPA. “The bottom line is that they are afraid of being judged, of how they come across, of being compared to others, of an outcome that only plays out in their heads.”
Rodriguez is committed to giving the next generation of safety leaders the confidence and tools they need to present themselves and their ideas in the best possible light. Here are the top five tips he shares with learners across the country.
1. Get Your Mind Right
Since the fear of public speaking is in your mind, the best way to start improving is to look inward. Set aside some time and identify three areas in which you’d like to grow. Perhaps you want to become a more confident storyteller, clearer speaker and more engaging activity leader. Be sure the growth areas you choose are focused on your presentation delivery, not your message.
“Early in my career, I remember presenting for the purpose of delivering information,” says Rodriguez. “Later, I learned that a presentation’s purpose is to cause an action that would not otherwise be taken, using information as the reason for doing so.”
This changed Rodriguez’s outlook, he says, and made him realize that public speaking was more about reaching people’s hearts than filling their heads.
2. Be Flexible
Expert speakers are adept at considering and addressing the needs of their audiences. Even the most compelling and finely tuned presentation is incomplete until the speaker has double-checked the style, tone and messaging with each specific occasion in mind.
“In a business meeting, you should already know what your peers and leaders need to be successful, so deliver your presentation using well-vetted facts and data,” says Rodriguez. “In a keynote, wrap a story around your message and deliver it in a way that causes the audience to pause.”
After you finish speaking, identify a trusted friend or colleague and ask for honest, constructive feedback. Were you rushing or going too slowly? Was your story relatable? Were your data points convincing? Make note of the feedback for next time and adjust accordingly.
3. Watch the Experts
Inspiration can come from unexpected people and places. It’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open in an effort to prioritize your own growth.
“I study and analyze every keynote speaker I hear, every trainer I see, every successful colleague I listen to and every comedian who makes me laugh,” says Rodriguez. Watching stand-up comedy not only can teach presenters about good timing, he continues, but also how to use the element of surprise. After all, many of the best jokes and teaching moments involve getting people to expect one thing and then telling them another. But in the spirit of comedy’s golden rule – don’t steal another comedian’s jokes – Rodriguez encourages safety presenters to be true to themselves first.
“Make your presentation style your own and minimize copying other presenters,” he says. “Mimic the approach and style of people you respect, but not their exact performances.”
4. Tell Stories
Social psychologist and marketer Jennifer Aaker conducted an informal classroom experiment several years ago while teaching at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. She wanted to determine the effect of storytelling on memory following a series of one-minute presentations. The result? Sixty-three percent of students remembered at least one story, but only 5 percent could recall a single statistic.
Rodriguez, whose presentation tips frequently consider the emotional resonance of a message, considers insufficient storytelling to be one of the top three mistakes he sees in the presentations of emerging professionals.
“Some say, ‘Well, I’m young. I don’t have the stories older professionals have at their disposal,’” Rodriguez explains. “I say, ‘But you have Google, YouTube and an American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) network with a world of stories for you to use.’”
5. Own the Room
When speakers walk onstage with the confidence of someone who deserves to be there, it shows. That self-assured presence will go a long way toward helping you persuade your audience, Rodriguez says, adding that insecurity often has an equal and opposite effect. Achieving the poise you need to own a room takes practice, but learning the power of your own self-perception can pay off in every other aspect of your professional life.
“Owning the room means having the audience’s permission to impact them at a personal level,” he continues, “and to give them what they came for – you.”
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