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Quint's Column: Why public speaking is a fundamental skill for leaders

  • Jul 29, 2019
  • Quint Studer
man speaking in front of a group of people with powerpoint presentation man speaking in front of a group of people with powerpoint presentation
Recently I read an article in Inc. magazine on the crucial importance of public speaking. The author, Carmine Gallo, makes a great case that being able to speak in front of a group and persuade people is no longer a “soft skill” but rather a leadership fundamental.
I absolutely agree. While every leader perhaps isn’t cut out to pursue a career as a public speaker, it’s critical to be able to speak confidently in front of an audience. It’s like rocket fuel for your credibility and can help you leap ahead in your career. In an age when people are drowning in information pouring in from all directions, being able to verbally carry a clear, compelling message is more important than ever before.
And yet many are deeply uncomfortable with speaking in front of a group. Most of us have probably heard the statistic that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death! I’m not sure this is really accurate but no doubt it is a very real and common fear. I suspect the fear is even more pronounced in younger people who grew up learning to communicate by text and social media.
At training sessions for managers and supervisors, we sometimes ask participants to share in front of a group. They often start out by saying, “I am not good at this,” or, “I don’t like speaking in front of people,” or even, “I am really nervous.” Other times, if someone has to speak after a professional speaker has presented, they might say, “How am I supposed to follow him (or her)?” 
When people say things like this, they do themselves a disservice. This kind of “disclaimer” immediately discredits what they are about to say.  
Public speaking is just part of a leader’s job. Whether you’re asked to take the stage at a conference, present to a board, address a roomful of customers (or potential customers), or speak with employees, you need to get comfortable with speaking in front of others. Better to get proactive about mastering this skill than avoid it and then botch it when you have to speak on short notice.
Here are a few tips for gaining speaking experience and overcoming your anxiety:

Seek out as much “formal” speaking experience as you can. There are plenty of conferences looking for presenters. This gives you a chance to practice your speaking and spread the word about your company at the same time. It’s okay if you don’t get paid. The idea is to force yourself out of your comfort zone and gain some practical experience.
If you’re not ready for that level of speaking, start out with some “low stakes” opportunities. For example, you could speak in front of service groups you are a member of, work groups that you are involved in, or small group meetings. You could ask to present at a companywide staff meeting. 
Invest in professional help. I’m a big believer in learning from the experts and that includes speaking. Attend a public speaking workshop or engage a speaking coach for a few sessions. Even an improv class can go a long way toward making you feel comfortable. 
Consider a co-presenter. This divides up the work so it’s not so overwhelming. Also, if you forget something, the co-presenter can speak up and rescue you. Just knowing someone is there who has your back can be quite comforting and go a long way toward easing your anxiety.
Don’t overwhelm your audience. Think about your takeaways. What do you want them to leave with? Pick two ideas and focus on those. Don’t try to tell them everything you know in one presentation.
Remind yourself that it’s normal to be nervous. Virtually everyone feels this way when they get started in public speaking. I speak often and have done so for many years, and I still get anxious before a talk. It’s natural. As I mentioned earlier, just don’t apologize or put yourself down: Most people already realize you are nervous. They are probably just glad they aren’t the ones in the spotlight.
Prepare and practice before you speak. “Winging it” rarely works out well. Make sure you know your material inside and out. Practice your speech out loud, preferably in front of a coworker, or even a friend or family member, before you present. Ask them for feedback on what you might do better. You might even record it (audio or even video) and play it back to look for weaknesses to brush up on.
Don’t try to memorize. Sure, have a good solid outline, but don’t try to script every detail. This will set you up for failure because if you forget a point, it can derail the entire presentation. Also, you want to engage your audience and you can’t do that if all your attention is on trying to remember your “script.”
Don’t overload your PowerPoint slides. You want some compelling visuals to keep you on track and to hold the audience’s attention. What you don’t want is a ton of text—the audience will focus too much on reading it instead of paying attention to you.
Be aware of the time. You don’t want to end too early or run over on time. Practice helps a lot with this. Know which pieces of your presentation can be lifted out in the event that you get started later than scheduled.
Think positively about the presentation. If you assume you’re going to choke, and you play that negative scenario over and over in your head, you’re more likely to live up to your own expectations. Tell yourself it will go fine and that the audience has shown up to hear you. They want to hear you. Positive self-talk is very powerful!
Know the venue when you can. What’s the room set-up? What kind of microphone (if any) will you have? 
Try to get to the speaking venue a bit early. Mingle with the audience and make some light conversation. Get to know them a little. This way you won’t feel like they are “strangers,” and you’ll be more at ease.  
Pay attention to your body language. Stand up straight, relax your shoulders, breathe deeply, and smile. All of this makes you look more confident to the audience and, in turn, will make you actually start to feel more confident. (It’s the fake-it-till-you-make-it principle.)
Focus on the message instead of how you are doing. When you’re too self-conscious, you seem nervous. When you think about the content of what you’re saying (rather than how you are saying it), you’ll tap into your passion for the message. This will engage the audience. 
Have fun! People will connect with you better if you can make it fun, and it will help relieve your anxiety. Some self-deprecating humor always helps lighten the mood. 
Finally, be kind to yourself. No presentation is perfect, and you will make a mistake from time to time. It’s okay. Public speaking isn’t easy for anyone. However, it’s a skill, not an inborn ability. Even if you never love speaking in front of people, you will find that the more you do it, the better you’ll get—and the better you get, the more your confidence will grow.

SCI has hosted public speaking workshops in the past. If you think we should host another in 2020, please let us know by taking this short survey. Your feedback will help us develop a program agenda that meets your unique needs.

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