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The importance of using humility when public speaking


If you haven't done much public speaking, chances are that you will make the one mistake that audiences won't forgive, you will be arrogant. It comes from trying to convince people that you're the expert here, and worth listening to. You might give a list of credentials, awards you've won. You know, the reason they should listen to you. Big mistake.

They already know what a big smarty-pants you are, because you're up in front of an audience. Even the most positive audience will resent you for that. What you need to build is a connection, and you do it with humility. I call it being "self-effacing".

I learned this when I first started teaching in the 1990s. The moment that I got up in front of the audience, they disliked me. They imagined that I would be a typical long-winded pompous jerk, making everyone in the class feel stupider than they already felt. So I needed to get some empathy from the crowd. And it meant that I had to find things that I'm not good at, and mention them, in a humorous way.

This is an amazing transformation, when you see an audience go from hating you to seeing you are not such a bad guy. If you're bald, or overweight, you can joke a bit about that. For me, I chose math. Specifically, arithmetic. I'm really not very good at counting. You know, like if you're playing 21 and you have to add 7 and 5 and 2 together. I kind'a need to count on my fingers. If the numbers get any higher, I need to take off my shoes.

Now be careful with this. You don't want to be giving a lecture on Adobe software, and say that you never really understood Adobe software. Find something that's relatively unrelated. For me, math made sense. I grew up with calculators, and computers. I don't have to divide 340 by 27 by getting a piece of scratch paper and pencil, or doing it in my head - besides, life is too short for that, and hey, I have a computer right here!

So find something that you are genuinely humble about. Don't spend a lot of time talking about it, but do share it. Set aside the bragging, and trying to convince people how great you are. Make a connection to the audience, then begin talking about your subject. And then make a connection again.