Confidence in Communicating – Gary Plaag
by Alison Johnson
(link to story from Williamsburg’s “Next Door Neighbors” magazine, Vol 11, Issue 1, January 2017; Reprinted with permission)
As a child, Gary Plaag wasn’t comfortable talking in front of a class. When he first began performing in barbershop harmony and dance groups as a young adult, he still had to force himself to speak to audiences onstage.
By the time Gary was speaking at Information Technology conferences during his first professional career, he was confident enough that fellow attendees would ask for advice with their presentations. That’s when a light bulb went off. He liked helping other people communicate more than he liked being the center of attention.
“I can do a [speaking] gig myself really well,” he says. “What drives me, though, is guiding others to discover how to tell their stories and be successful. Seeing people overcome their anxieties, get out of their own way and find their voice is much more joyful for me.”
Now 59, Gary is President of Couragio Consulting, a global firm he founded in 1998. Through Couragio, he offers communication, presentation and public speaking coaching for individuals, trade groups and businesses of all sizes across the country and world. Services include businesses presentation and interpersonal communication skills, interview preparation and life coaching.
Gary’s methods often surprise and challenge his clients. He sometimes asks corporate employees to read Dr. Seuss books aloud, for example, to fight their fear of looking silly in public. He regularly makes video recordings of his clients speaking, watches the tapes with them and prods them to notice and talk about their good qualities.
“People tend to focus only on what they don’t like about themselves,” he notes. “Many people think they have nothing of value to offer. Their filter is often skewed. They need to see themselves the way others see them. I want them to celebrate what they are good at, and then we can work on things that could be better.”
With greater confidence and a message and/or presentation aids designed to “hook” an audience, clients can turn their nerves into excitement about sharing their thoughts and ideas, Gary says. When he hears a client has nailed a presentation, run a successful seminar or captivated an audience onstage, he feels deep personal pride. Sometimes, he gets to be there in person. “I’ve been thanked in front of literally thousands of people,” he notes. “That is pretty amazing and humbling.”
One of Gary’s inspirations is also surprising at first glance: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Both of his parents attended meetings when he was a boy growing up in Northern Virginia, he shares. From their journey to sobriety, he discovered that people won’t change their behavior until it hurts them badly enough, but that everyone is always responsible for his or her own actions. Speaking honestly, owning mistakes and listening to others were other keys to recovery.
“AA is a very supportive environment, but it also just doesn’t do excuses,” he relates. “I hear excuses all the time in my work, why people can’t do something.” He doesn’t take every client, in fact. “There’s a difference in wanting to get better and being willing to get better. When you are willing, you are willing to be uncomfortable, maybe very uncomfortable, to get where you need to be.”
Gary credits his mother, now deceased, for passing on both the drive to help others and the courage to tackle new skills. She taught him ballroom dancing when he was 6 and later signed him up for tap and music lessons. His dad, still alive and now sober for 48 years, drilled him on the need to consider and accept the consequences of every decision. The director of his high school band, where Gary played clarinet and alto saxophone, modeled the value of discipline in achieving goals.
At William & Mary, Gary kept pushing his boundaries as he earned a degree in government. “I joined the whitewater rafting canoeing team,” he recalls. “How crazy is that?” As a junior and senior, he auditioned for shows as a musician and chorus member. After college, he joined Barbershop Harmony, Scottish Country Dancing and Bavarian Folk Dance groups, some of which performed internationally in front of thousands.
Yet Gary’s career as an Information Technology (IT) Analyst and Manager wasn’t as fulfilling. By 1997, he was suffering in an IT support job in Northern Virginia. “The normal burnout timeframe was six to 10 months, and I had been there for 11 years,” he says. By then, he had been on the IT speaking circuit for about seven years.
“The combination of my unpleasant job situation meeting with an exciting teaching opportunity pushed me to leave the IT career and start Couragio Consulting,” says Gary, who also holds a Master’s [Degree] in Communication from George Mason University. In 2014, he moved to Williamsburg to escape the bustle and traffic of Northern Virginia.
Gary works with all types of employees and businesses, in person and via video conferencing. Last spring, he traveled to Sweden for a workshop with a road construction company, where one challenge was to guide a few employees to be more comfortable communicating in English.
“After reading a children’s story aloud in Swedish, they realized they could make some mistakes and that was OK,” he says. “What I do is make it safe for people to be vulnerable.”
Some clients, including top executives, balk at that approach. “It took one guy a half hour to agree to read a Dr. Seuss story aloud,” Gary says. “He was scared, even though it was just me and him in the room. It wasn’t part of his paradigm on what ‘professional’ people should do, but once you are able to lean into the discomfort and get past those arbitrary ‘rules’, you realize it’s actually kind of fun. You can be playful, and then getting up in front of people probably isn’t as scary.”
One of Gary’s clients gained the bravery and talents to go after, and land, a coveted job as a school administrator. That same client even took advantage of Gary’s tips on music performance and went on to win an international barbershop quartet singing competition.
“It’s not so much telling people what to do, but leading them in guided self-discovery,” Gary explains, again drawing from Alcoholics Anonymous. “You lead them to discover things for themselves, so they will take real ownership.”
Startups and small businesses often need training beyond the specific technical ability or product that sets them apart. “They don’t realize that they also need additional skills or need to hire people who have those needed skills. So they quickly become overwhelmed with trying to do all the other aspects of running a business and the business fails.” Gary mentors start-up businesses through Launchpad, the Greater Williamsburg Business Incubator, in New Town.
Couragio is a one-man operation, although Gary may look to hire a few trusted employees one day. He relies heavily on referrals to land new clients. “I don’t advertise because what I do is hard for people to understand without experiencing it, first hand,” he says. “I also tend to work myself out of jobs. When people are making progress and growing their confidence and skills, they will eventually no longer need regular coaching.”
Along with his business work, Gary continues to give live speeches and music performances to hone his skills and remember the jitters many of his clients feel. “Even now, I sometimes still have a little bit of that wonder, ‘Will they like me?’” he admits. “I can talk myself off the ledge, though, because what is labeled ‘anxiety’ can instead be seen as a chance to have an impact on people’s lives.”
Gary also keeps putting himself in unfamiliar territory. Currently, he is learning to speak Swedish. “I’m constantly doing things I don’t know how to do,” he says. “It’s not easy to be new at something, but it’s so worthwhile in the end.”
Helping others discover that fulfillment, he believes, is his calling.
“Teaching someone the skills necessary to be able to communicate effectively is what drives me, 24/7,” Gary Plaag says. “Helping them reach their goals is what pushes me to live. It doesn’t feel like work.” NDN