When N’Gina Kavookjian was asked to speak at the local chapter of an international monthly breakfast lecture series for creative communities, she was hesitant to accept the invitation. The co-owner of South restaurant doesn’t typically find herself in front of a captive audience, and she was unsure how she would connect with people outside her industry.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I had the guts to do it, because I’m speaking to creatives not in my industry, to graphic designers and bloggers … I didn’t know how I would connect with them,” she says, considering the topic of her speech – equality.
But Kavookjian realized she didn’t have to search for material, it was her life. As a black woman who got paid less than her male counterparts while having more responsibility. Yet she was anxious about the repercussions of sharing her story, of how it would affect her business, so she took her sister’s advice – “We live with the repercussions of just existing with the melanin in our skin, so just speak the truth.”
She accepted the offer to deliver a 20-minute talk, which brought attendees to tears and elicited belly laughter. The connection came easily. The recorded version of her speech remains CM Sacramento’s most-viewed video.
Moments before taking the stage, Kavookjian had the jitters. “I was sweating down to my hip,” she says, on top of chewing 19 pieces of gum and pacing. She was worried about the repercussions of sharing her story.
“For me, that was it – to be able to successfully get up in front of a group of people and engage with them, get vulnerable and make connections,” says Kavookjian.
When her voice cracked a few minutes into her speech, Kavookjian made the decision to get real. She opened up about her experiences as a black female restaurateur – facing sexism, racism and ageism – and let go of how people perceived her, even if it meant they viewed her as an “angry black woman.”
“I spoke my truth,” she says. “I left that day so energized, it was pretty amazing.”
Public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects 73 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Public Health. The underlying fear is judgment or negative evaluation by others.
Yet experts say the only way to overcome it is to face it. And doing so is smart for business.
Rob Scherer, franchise owner of the Sacramento Dale Carnegie Training chapter, which offers leadership, self-improvement and performance-based training, says reducing this social phobia not only raises one’s self worth, but elevates business’ bottom line.
“A leader has to be able to not only deliver data, but to inspire people to change and see things differently,” Scherer says. “Without effective speaking skills they can’t do that.”
Rebecca Plumb, who brought CreativeMornings to Midtown Sacramento, hosts the speaking event. As a child she says she was “extremely shy.” In college she put off taking a required speech class for as long as possible. As a professional graphic designer, Plumb let others present her work.
“I was more comfortable taking the backseat on it because I didn’t want to do the speaking part, though I could have presented the work stronger because it was mine,” Plumb says.
In the summer of 2016, Plumb and her then business partner were invited to speak in front of 300 people at a design conference. She deferred to her partner to present the speech, a decision she later regretted.
Eventually Plumb’s level of annoyance with herself turned into action. She made a huge leap and applied to host a local CreativeMornings chapter. “I think it’s in my nature to go a little extreme to shake things up,” she says. “I love making big changes that put me in a sink-or-swim situation because I know I will adapt quickly if I have to. With smaller, incremental shifts, it’s easy to slip back into old habits and it takes longer, for me at least.”
That was more than a year ago. Plumb, the face of CM Sacramento, has stood in front of 100-plus people to host the monthly series for the past year.
She doesn’t rehearse like she did early on. She says she’s grown more comfortable and has stopped criticizing herself. “I treat the audience as a friend and a lot are now,” she says. “If I’m comfortable, the audience is comfortable and they’re open to what we’re saying.”
Refining public speaking is just like learning a foreign language or learning to play an instrument, Scherer says. “The more you do it, the better you get. When I first started at Carnegie I asked my boss, ‘How do I get better at speaking to groups?’ And he said, ‘Go out and speak to 100 groups, then come back and ask me the same question.’”
It’s not as simple as imagining your audience naked. In fact, it’s bad advice that does nothing to ease the nerves of the speaker. But there are some practical, useful tools seasoned speakers implement to keep cool and connect:
- Be Yourself; Plumb thought she needed to sound more polished, professional. But “you can’t speak confidently when you’re not speaking in your own voice,” she says. “So I mess up and say silly things on stage, and I just decided that’s my schtick. People will learn to expect I’m just me and be OK with that.”
- Clench Your Buttocks; According to “Speak: So Your Audience Will Listen” by Robin Kermode, this practice creates an open posture, which makes one appear confident. Plumb is a fan of Kermode’s work and she shares this advice with CM speakers.
- Read the Room; It also helps to read the audience, Kavookjian says, relating to the restaurant industry, where it’s critical to gauge the customer and what they need. “When you’re in a room full of 150 people, that’s hard to do compared to the one-on-one of the table,” she says. “But in those big collectives, there is an energy present and it is possible to connect with everyone in the room just as you would a four-top in your restaurant.”
- Be a Storyteller; Numbers and data don’t paint a picture, but an engaging story can change someone’s mind, Schemer says. “You and I will listen to examples and stories, whereas we won’t always listen to data.”
Kavookjian’s interactions with her all-male kitchen staff have shifted since her speech, she says. She considers their interactions more open, and she’s more receptive when her employees are open and vulnerable instead of shutting them down and drawing a hard line between owner and employee. Kavookjian has also shifted her dialogue “in terms of not using the feminine as a negative,” she says.
The biggest takeaway for Kavookjian goes beyond business. “I’m not afraid to speak my truth anymore,” she says. Releasing negative energy through speech can be cathartic, she says, and doing so showed her “I don’t need to hold onto these things.”