Learning to Own the Room

I recently attended an Own the Room public speaking and communication course in New York.

I’ve done a lot of public speaking, from enterprise software sales pitches in the early days, to paid keynote speeches more recently. But I’ve never formally trained. I’ve relied on some natural ability, decent content, and feedback from friends/clients along the way.

Over the past year, I felt like I hit a plateau in my verbal communication/presenting skill. I also came to the more general realization — described in my recent blog post on investing in yourself — I should be investing aggressively in my existing strengths. So I flew to New York and participated in the intensive Own the Room bootcamp, which had been referred to me by several people in my network.

It was phenomenal. I learned so much. Here are some reflections.

The native speaker who can’t write or understand grammar. When I took Spanish classes in school in California, there were always a few near-native speakers — immigrants whose parents spoke Spanish at home. Their accent was perfect and conversational pattern fluid, but occasionally they would unknowingly make very basic grammatical errors. They were never taught grammar; they couldn’t spell many words they spoke. Going through this course, I felt like I was that native Spanish speaker: when I speak or verbally communicate, I do a fine job most of the time, but now I know I make some really basic mistakes. Until this course, I wasn’t aware of the mistakes, let alone how to improve them. I’d argue that many business execs with a natural flair for speaking fall into this camp. They’re quite good, but they won’t get to great without stretching themselves beyond their natural ability.

The bootcamp model. I’ve blogged about the bootcamp model of learning. Own the Room definitely fits that mold — a couple super intensive days focused on a single topic. I still seek a framework by which you can evaluate when a format of learning fits the type of learning — i.e., I think a bootcamp model works well for public speaking, but not for language learning, say.

Demand feedback. “What did I do well? What could I do better next time?”After every module exercise, we “demanded feedback” from our partner or small group or coach by asking these two questions. This is a general learning theme, of course, but was emphasized to such a degree in Own the Room that it stuck with me more than anything else. (“What could I do better next time?” is an example of ‘feedforward’ instead of ‘feedback’ as Marshall Goldsmith calls it — constructive feedback focuses on what you can do better next time.)

Presence comes from change. Dynamic leaders have presence. It’s a hard thing to define. When do you feel someone’s “presence” in a room?  You feel presence when they change. Change their physical position. Change the volume of their voice. Change the speed of their voice. Change their point/topic. Change = presence. A huge learning.

Voice modulation and pauses. I discovered in the class two key weaknesses in how I verbally communicate. First, I don’t employ pauses enough. The rightly timed pause can make such a difference in how a point lands in the audience. Second, I don’t modulate my voice. I don’t use the full range of volume. I’m too monotone too often.

“Imagine…” Paint pictures with words. Paint pictures with words. Paint pictures with words.

Here’s a video of highlights from the first day of the course I attended.

And here’s a clip of Bill Hoogterp, owner of Own the Room, teaching voice modulation and body language:

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