A Fate Worse Than Death?

Public speaking can be difficult the first time but it’s not that scary. 

It was the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld who famously told an audience, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy!

He got a big laugh, of course, but I have noticed how, when it’s time for the participants in my public speaking workshops to take the stage, there are, indeed, some who appear more willing to take the “casket” option (i.e. to remain seated) than to give the “eulogy” (i.e. speak in public).

Pantelis was determined to be on the eulogy side and to summon up all the courage he could muster in order to conquer his fears and give it a go. His chosen topic was “Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies” – one in which he had a vested interest – so what better place than our workshop to prepare and rehearse a speech that would later inform and dazzle investors and other interested parties?

Getting stuck

Pantelis’s first – and main – challenge was to make people understand what is meant by the terms “blockchain technology” and “cryptocurrencies”. Once he had overcome that fundamental hurdle, he would be in a position to explain how businesses and individuals could benefit from adopting these new technologies.

By the time I sat down with Pantelis, he had already decided how to start his presentation: by clearly defining both terms. Here is what he was intending to tell his audience:

  • “A blockchain, originally block chain (two words), is a growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. By design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of the data.
  • A cryptocurrency is a digital currency in which encryption techniques are used to regulate the generation of units of currency and verify the transfer of funds, operating independently of a central bank.

On hearing this, it was obvious to me that, if Pantelis proceeded as he planned to, he was almost certain to confuse (and ultimately lose) his audience very quickly, for the simple reason that most of the people listening were unlikely to understand the technical terms and jargon he was using (if they understood it, there would be no need to define the topics) or the philosophy behind blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. I think Pantelis also sensed that he was not coming across in the most interesting way but, never having received any advice and training on public speaking, he didn’t know what other ways were available. He was stuck. 

 Getting unstuck

Whenever I conduct these particular workshops, I have only one thing on my mind and that is to help potential speakers become “unstuck” and, in particular, discover an innovative way of beginning their presentation.

Getting an audience to lean in with interest, especially on a topic that very few people may easily relate to, is not easy but it is certainly not impossible. It simply requires the speaker to find a way of linking the “difficult” subject – in this case, “Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies” – to the everyday reality of those who are listening. Enabling Pantelis to grab the audience’s attention and thus getting him “unstuck” had become not only my mission but my obligation. 

And so I asked myself a simple question: Why would anyone want to adopt blockchain technology? Pantelis had mentioned that a blockchain is resistant to modification of the data”. I remembered the news reports about the recent elections in Turkey and how President Erdogan had been accused of tampering with ballot papers (modification). I also recalled the huge Facebook data breach and another instance of hackers gaining access to millions of bank accounts.

After careful deliberation with Pantelis, I proposed that he began his presentation in this way: “My grandmother used to keep her money underneath her mattress. My mother kept her money in the bank. Where do you think we will be keeping our money by the time we are halfway through the 21st century?

The audience was all ears.

This simple introduction not only got Pantelis’ audience to lean in with interest but also persuaded half of them consider the two terms more deeply. He took them exactly where he intended to: to see a new technology in a favourable light rather than fight it without first trying to understand what it had to offer.

The Outcome

Pantelis walked away to non-stop applause. He knew that it did not mean that everyone would now become a blockchain ambassador or that they were all convinced of the future of cryptocurrencies but he walked away knowing that he had been understood.

You won’t find many people who will tell you, in all seriousness, that public speaking is easy. It’s not. It takes courage and effort to stand in front of an audience and keep their attention. However, no-one who has done it successfully will ever accept that it’s a fate worse than death, whatever Jerry Seinfield may say. And once you have learned various techniques and found a way to get your listeners to relate to your subject – however “difficult” it may appear to be – you will be well on the way to “giving the eulogy” instead of being the unfortunate person in the casket!