It happened 35 years ago and I'll never forget it.
I was a reporter at the time, making a TV item about disabled children coping with mainstream classrooms. Five-year-old Nicola had terminal muscular atrophy and was in a wheelchair. Now, are you expecting something bleak or grim? No need, because Nicola was doing much, much better than just coping.
Her quiet presence dominated the room. She wore an unmistakeable cloak of charisma - the kind of charisma that draws people to you regardless of your looks or circumstances. I was fascinated. Charisma in a five-year-old? How does that happen? I watched closely as she interacted with her classmates. Was there something special in her verbal or body language? But I couldn't spot anything specific that would account for it. It was a mystery.
Until I interviewed her.
We took her out into the playground. As she was wheeled across the grass, she chatted cheerfully with me. And she showed no nervousness or self-consciousness - which would be normal for a small child about to be interviewed by a grownup TV crew. We placed her so that the classroom was in the background, and turned on the camera. After a couple of minutes - on impulse - I said this to her:
"Nicola, the other children all want to play with you. You're very popular."
She understood exactly what I was getting at. She screwed up her face for about three seconds of thought. Her expression cleared. I remember that the pupils of her eyes were large and dark. And warm.
"I think it's because I like them."
I like them. Not they like me. That, from a small child, was an interesting reply.
So, to the point for us as speakers. When you're in front of an audience, never let your nervousness or self-consciousness mask your natural liking for the people in front of you.
Engage warmly. Let your manner (eyes, tone, body language) make it obvious that you like the people in front of you, that you want to be there talking to them.
And do it right from your greeting. Too many presenters immediately lose engagement by delivering Good morning as a flat space filler. Think about that. Good morning has to sound as if you actually want that for the people in front of you.
Nicola is long gone. She died unexpectedly early, in an accident. All these years later, her insight is still with me.
Okay, this is light-hearted, but there's a serious point to make about our ability to be present with an audience.
Outside our kitchen window, there's a very large elm tree. Late every afternoon, around dusk, a blackbird sits in it and sings. No ordinary song - for at least 20 minutes this feathered diva does not repeat itself. We never hear the same musical phrase; not in tone, note or rythym. It clearly makes its melodies up, without pause, as it goes. It can't be a simple message like danger, or worm; anything like that is surely done with a single raucous chirp.
What's it doing? My wife and I have decided that our blackbird enjoys speaking in public and does not suffer from self-consciousness.
Sure, I'm reaching a long way for that one. So here's the serious bit. The hard truth.
However kind and understanding our audiences may be, if they detect self-consciousness, they see us as less credible. Just to be clear, the self-consciousness is itself the enemy, more than any mistakes we might make.
Why? Because when we're worried about ourselves we're sending a potent signal to our audience that our attention is actually not on them.
How to get over self-consciousness? That's what all these blogs are about. But for now, here's a super quick tip that works startlingly well for some people - it's emotional blackmail you apply to yourself. Ask, Who am I here for? Is it for me? Or is it for my audience?
The audience? Right answer.