the one skill to develop

Want a leg up professionally? Need a career boost? Become a better public speaker.

I can hear the collective response: Ohhh, ugh, groan. Not public speaking. Yawn. That’s lame. Give me career advice I can use. Maybe more school or certifications. I hate public speaking.

And that’s a big reason why it’s such a powerful skill. So many people hate and fear public speaking that even a mediocre speaker really stands out.

Why public speaking?

It’s valuable in all fields and every position I can think of. Any position that involves speaking to another human benefits from better communication.

I have met leaders from numerous countries and cultures and cannot think of a single one who wasn’t an adequate public speaker. Speaking and communication skills are crucial to being an effective leader.

Your skills get noticed much more quickly. Who does leadership remember: the talented wallflower or the talented person who speaks up, interacts, and leads discussion?

It’s (relatively) easy to learn. You’ve already been speaking to people almost your entire life.

You can use it personally and professionally. In fact, if you are involved in community, school, or church groups, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to put your public speaking skills to use.

 

Suggestions?

This is a big topic and books can and have been written on it. That said, there are a couple of things that really helped me:

1. Your audience is pulling for you. Most of the people listening hate public speaking so they empathize strongly with you. They feel your pain and want you to succeed. Unless you are a professional speaker, they are very forgiving of mistakes.

2. They don’t know what they don’t know. This was the most freeing realization for me. The audience doesn’t have a script. They aren’t verifying that you are saying what you intended to say. They will never know if you make minor mistakes or leave something out. Relax.

3. Know the central point and always speak from there. There’s two sides to this. First, when preparing, always stay focused on the central point and strip away anything that doesn’t directly support it. Second, if you get off track, don’t worry about what you had intended to say, just speak from the central point and you’ll be ok.

4. Put some heart in it. No matter how dry the topic, you can find ways to connect to the audience’s humanness. People respond to their emotions, not logic. You are speaking for a reason – to offer insights, inspire, persuade, influence – otherwise you could just send an email.

5. The audience is always asking themselves, “Why do I care about this? What’s in it for me?” so you should always be answering that as you speak.

6. Introverts can have a great advantage as speakers. Never confuse being introverted with being shy because it’s not the same thing at all. And being talkative can be counterproductive when it comes to public speaking. Introverts seem to be good as staying on track, keeping it concise, and providing great insights and analysis.

7. Good speakers work hard at it. You never see all the preparation that went into even a short presentation. That speaker who looks relaxed and glib and gives a great presentation likely spent hours preparing and practicing and worrying and sweating. Very, very few can ad lib a good presentation. Those who can are almost always relying on years of experience. Rest assured, it is completely normal to need to invest a lot of time getting ready.

Like any skill, no one is great at public speaking right from the start. It takes time and practice and patience to improve. But, it is also well worth the effort because it’s a skill that sets you apart.

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8 comments

  1. Broc,

    There are so many great tips in this post. Thanks for sharing.

    One other idea that comes to mind is to tell a story if you can fit a good one into your presentation. People love stories, so I think including a good one if possible can help make a presentation even better.

    Also, I have rarely given presentations, but I gave one earlier this year and used a prop with a story I was telling which helped make the presentation even better.

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    1. Greg, great thought. Stories and props are a great way to make it real and help the audience connect on an emotional level. The biggest challenge I’ve personally found with stories is honing it down to really support my main point. That’s not always easy and I’ve sometimes gotten more focused on telling the story and forgot about why the story was important. Done poorly, it’s a distraction. Done right, it’s brilliant.

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  2. My greatest public speaking fear wasn’t the big crowd; it was the small crowd around the boardroom table. I distincly remember times when my contribution never got out of my head because I was scared I would sound foolish. All too often, someone who did not have that fear would say what I was thinking and people liked it! I actualy joined Toastmasters just for that. They have a section called Table Topics where you may be called on to speak on a specific topic for two minutes, with the only prep time being the lenght of time it took to get from your chair to the front of the room! It was a great way to learn how to organize my thoughts on the spot.

    As to number 5, I attended a Speaker’s Boot Camp in June and the faciltators advised us to always keep “Buddy” in mind when preparing a speech. Buddy is the person who is waiting for you to give him a reason to stop listening and check for emails or update his twitter account. Answering those two questions keeps Buddy with you longer.

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    1. Laurie, great thoughts. I, too, find that a small group can be more intimidating than a large group. “Buddy” is a great concept to help always keep the customer in mind – what will they hear, see, feel, take from it.

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  3. Excellent piece Broc, and all your points are gold! Of especial importance, your point number 1: “Your audience is pulling for you”. I had the privilege of having a highly talented trainer when I first learnt to speak, and this was her main point as well, only she would always say “Remember that the audience is there to hear you succeed”.

    It’s advice that has always stood me in good stead, right up to the point where I myself became a Public Speaking Trainer as well!

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    1. Wow, really appreciate the kind words from a pro! Thanks much. As to point #1, I remember forgetting the opening to a speech in front of about 120 suited up business folks early on in my career. Instead of freaking out like I normally would, I joked, relaxed, and got back on track. It became a very human moment and there was a noticeable shift in perception from “the guy speaking to us today” to “one of us”. It became my most successful presentation at that time.

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  4. Definitely a difference maker; hard to beat the adrenaline rush after finishing a presentation done well. As the philosopher Steve Martin said, “Some people have a way with words. Others…no have…..way?”

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