The Catalytic Corner Interview with Alexandra Perry
Alex Perry is the Founder of Practically Speaking and Author of Minivan Mogul: A Crash Course in Confidence for Women. https://pswithalex.com/
In your current professional role, how do you build the confidence of those who wish to become better at public speaking?
A lot of questions about presentations are grounded in what’s right or wrong in public speaking. I try to guide people toward how they would convey their message naturally, conversationally. Because many of us receive formal training regarding how to give presentations, there is often a checklist of things we must follow in order to do it right. That approach is not necessarily clear and compelling; it is often not natural and convincing.
I spend a lot of time undoing and helping people unlearn what they were taught because at the end of the day, you will never be comfortable speaking if you’re not speaking as yourself: if you’re trying to be someone else.
Were you always someone who could connect with others?
No, as a kid I was pretty meek, even shy. I’m from an upbringing that was pretty tough. My parents were divorced; my dad worked for the phone company. I essentially would just run around on my own. Lots of bullying and stuff so I kept a low profile much of the time. There were weird instances though where it did happen that I was called on to play a key role. For example, I decided that I was going to do a work-study program in high school. To my surprise, the entire class voted me as President. I never asked for it; I didn’t want it, but my teacher was like, “you should do it! Everyone loves you, and they want to connect with you.” The awareness of being able to connect well and lead kind of started then.
When were you first recognized as a being a catalyst…as being a positive influence on the performance of others?
As an intern, I worked as a speech pathologist at the VA with a star student from Purdue University: she was incredible. This girl could run circles around me in terms of my technical knowledge. However, my supervisor said to me that the thing about you that is so effective is that when you walk into a room you immediately make people comfortable. You do this by showing interest in them, by asking questions of them, by taking the time. A lot of times I just did what a lot of people in a hurry would not do. I find that you can’t get people to move, change or cooperate unless you are willing to spend a little time with them first.
Would your family describe you as having grit, as being willing to do the hard things?
Yes. My sister most definitely. She’s says: “you will just hit a brick wall over and over again until the brick wall finally caves.” I was the youngest of four in a busy home where I had to work to get someone’s attention! Education and being articulate were always highly valued. I had to prove myself, which created an independent streak where I’d try almost anything to be recognized, especially hard things.”
Can you have too much grit?
That’s a good question. Grit has positives and negatives. Persistence is not a bad thing, but I’m learning now at 42 to monitor myself from an energy perspective. Even though I am driven to achieve, I moderate it with (I hope) an ability to put others at ease, to connect with them and respect their ideas.
I learned that from my dad. He had this ability where he would simply just listen to you, and never interfere. You let them do what they’re going to do, you don’t interfere with their lives, and you just listen and step back. You help if they’re in dire need, but otherwise there was little interjection on anything we did.
Looking back, that has taught me to listen without “fixing”.
Who else do you know who is a catalyst?
Jenny Robbins is someone I work with who does this in a way that’s not anything like me: she is very quiet, very methodical, thoughtful. She has this capability of seeing potential and drawing it out of people. She has more of that pointed, “I am going to say one thing and it’s going to hit you, and I don’t know when it’s going to hit you, but it will.”
Nearly every time I’ve worked with her that is the case. Jenny and I are kind of like a Ying and Yang. She is very direct, but she’s not going to be the person who is going to walk in and dominate the room. She is going to look for an opportunity that encourages the individual or the team. She has a unique gift of telling you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. And I think those folks can be catalytic in a different way versus the traditional feel- good public speaker like me.
What would you suggest to people who may be more timid but have a lot to say? How should they break through in a presentation setting?
Don’t try and be anything other than what you are. Most important, get through the first 90 seconds!
Have that first part down pat; know how you are going to start. Physiologically you see the highest heart rate, even in the most comfortable speakers at the outset of a speech. What I do with more introverted, quiet speakers is figure out what can we do to take the focus off of them in order to get them to get more comfortable. I’m not out to change an introvert’s behavior. We know what helps us, so if you are a person who does really well having bullet points and notecards, then I’m not going to take that away from you and tell you that you have to have a memorized presentation. You’ll impair people by doing that. You wouldn’t ask a mechanic to do a job without his or her favorite tools. So, I ask my speakers, “what do you need to have in place so that you can serve your audience well?”
That’s what I remind any speaker. At the end of day you’re not talking for you: you are there for the audience and to share information and ideas in some persuasive manner.
What advice would you give to people who want to become more catalytic?
Be yourself. There’s nothing more compelling than someone who shows up in the world as they are, and speaks as they are, and acts as they are. Don’t confuse being catalytic with being likeable. If you want to be a catalyst you want to create change. That inherently means people aren’t necessarily going to like you at all times. Your content is almost always good when you’re speaking from who you are. I believe we are all inherently good communicators in our own way. My job is to help people discover their way.
The Catalytic Corner features interviews with individuals who have an out-sized impact on the performance of those around them. This article is authored by Jerry Toomer and Julia North. For more information see thecatalysteffect.org.