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Mary Ellen Bates: profile of an information brokering expert

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Becoming a successful public speaker

Mary Ellen uses public speaking as a way of marketing herself – yet initially it made her feel very uncomfortable. (In fact, Dutch information scientist Dennie Heye, in his book Characteristics of the Successful 21st Century Information Professional, lists public speaking as one of the seven skills of the highly effective information professional.)

"I'd heard from everybody that public speaking is a good way to promote yourself. And the thought made me feel nauseous. But I told myself that failure was not an option, and that I would do it whatever it took, but for the first five or ten presentations I gave I was miserable the whole time."

A strange, but encouraging revelation for a woman who now obtains a proportion of her revenue from public speaking – she regularly gives keynotes and workshops to conferences and organizations, most recently [at the time of writing – December 2009] to Online Information 2009, and at a gathering of military librarians in Nashville, Tennessee.

She is an engaging public speaker, her most effective asset being that she delivers highly practical information which can be used. But how did she overcome her fear and become more effective? Keeping on doing it helped – like most things, you get better with practice. But it's also important to read and react to the situation:

"When I give talks I watch the room and I know that I've done something right if I see people writing something down or looking engaged. When I notice that people are getting a little bit restless or the energy in the room goes down, and I'm doing this while I'm speaking, I think, OK, what was I just talking about where I lost them, what can I do to bring them all back again? Is it modulating my voice differently, is it going faster, going slower, asking more questions? My goal is always to see people writing stuff down or nodding their heads a lot."

Overcoming that sort of negative energy, especially from bright 20-somethings, was one of my difficulties when teaching – but Mary Ellen has learnt to see her audience as being on her side – "they want this to be a good presentation".

Inevitably, there will be times when things don't go so well, even for a highly competent speaker: Mary Ellen was once told, an hour into a workshop, that:

"'You are completely off, this is completely not what we're interested in'. And that was kind of a toughy ... "

The big thing is not to take a failure personally:

"I took the negative energy and figured it doesn't reflect on my value as a person. I think of the quote from The Godfather, 'it's business, it's not personal', and it's not that you're telling me I'm a bad person, you're just telling me that what I'm delivering now is not what they want. So I've nowhere to go but up".