Presentation 201: Why public speaking is like billiards

Posted by David Meerman Scott 06:02 AM on March 17, 2009

My post yesterday Top ten tips for incredibly successful public speaking received the most hits of any post I have written this year, so I thought I'd add a thought about public speaking and why it is like billiards. I first shared this idea on the Marketing Over Coffee podcast with John Wall and Christopher Penn last year.

But it was my absolutely dismal performance at the Social Media Club pool 2.0 party at South-by-Southwest that made me re-think this. My teammate Jonathan Fields, author of Career Renegade, and I, playing for the "Authors 2.0" team lost in the first round. Photo from the event courtesy of net2no.

I used to play a lot of pool while in university and later while living in Tokyo. I got pretty good. Sadly, I’ve lost my skills in the past decade or so, but I fondly recall when I was at the top of my game how it felt.

These days, I do a lot of public speaking. I first started about 20 years ago while I was living in Tokyo and some friends started the Tokyo Breakfast Toastmasters Club. I spoke at least once a month for six years as part of Toastmasters. Then I began to speak a lot at conferences and events for my work as VP marketing for several companies. Now I am on the speaking circuit full time.

So here's the idea:

Novice: When you first start playing pool, you're worried about just hitting the cue ball properly and not looking stupid. You want to at least get the white one to hit a colored one and if it gets in the hole, that’s a bonus. Your total attention is on that cue ball.

As a speaker, the first few times on the podium, you just want to deliver your content without passing out due to stage fright. Your total attention is on your presentation.

Intermediate: After you've played some pool, you start to be aware of your opponent. What is he doing? Shall I buy him a beer so he gets a bit more drunk and starts to miss?

After you've delivered a dozen or so presentations, you start to get a true sense of the audience as more than just a fuzzy haze of faces. How are they reacting? Did the joke work?

Advanced: You've got the important shots down cold and nearly always hit them. Your mind moves away from the actual shots and you're starting to think strategy. Instead of taking a difficult shot, should you go defensive and block your opponent in?

After about 50 or so presentations, you really know your material. In fact, you know your material so well that you don't think about it and instead your mind can focus on secondary things like where you stand, how you hold your hands and if the joke worked better with a one second pause before the punch line or two.

Professional: I was never even close to a professional-level pool player, but I saw some hustlers in action. What struck me was that it was always a given that they would sink the next shot, so their mind was focused on placement of the cue ball for the next shot. A good player could run the table because they were constantly setting up one shot ahead.

I've gotten to the point after doing hundreds of presentations that I can be thinking several slides ahead. While I am delivering, say, slide 42 I am focused on how I am setting up a punch line that comes at slide 44.

There is an amazing Zen-like focus when you have this much experience. You start to be aware of things in the room that even the audience is not aware of. I will often look into an audience of 300 people and be able to count exactly how many people are not looking at me and instead focused on their iPhone or BlackBerry. And I get pissed if the number is more than zero. At this point, all the time you are presenting, you are making mental notes for how to improve little things the next time.

At this level, both pool and public speaking is like a drug. You need a fix. Where is the next stage (or table)? How far do I have to travel till I’m in the comfort zone of being in front of 250 people? When will I next experience a line of 50 people wanting to say hello after a gig?

Anyone else hopelessly addicted to public speaking?

David Meerman Scott

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