Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Recently, whilst catching up with an ex-colleague they asked how I thought they could improve their gravitas. This was someone I have known and mentored for several years and was someone steadily climbing the ranks at a global investment bank. I knew that most of their days were filled with internal meetings of one kind or another: team meetings, 1 to 1s, internal clients, governance or project meetings so I predicted that they really were referring to a larger topic, that of public speaking.
I asked them to be more specific, what did they really mean and did they have a desired outcome or improvement that they could visualise? Upon further discussion they expanded and provided more clarity - their goal was to be a better public speaker, they wanted to have a more impactful presence in their meetings and referenced that they wanted to have the impact and respect that they had seen me command over the years. They wanted to have more impact on the meetings, their participants and hence the outcomes.
I have seen countless hardworking, diligent and highly credible people not maximise their impact because of mediocre communication skills so this request wasn’t a surprise. In fact, what does surprise me is that more aspiring leaders and experienced professionals don’t consciously spend time improving their communication skills. The most admired, most impactful corporate leaders don’t get as good at public speaking as they are without a considerable investment of time and effort.
Picture the scene, the charismatic and enigmatic CEO is up on stage in front of a packed audience. The room is full of employees, members of the press and die-hard enthusiasts for the products sold by the company. The scene has been set with rumour and speculation, targeted snippets of information released, and leaks have preceded this moment.
Taking the stage with an air of drama, the presenter announces to the awaiting audience about the revolutionary product they are about to see. The year was 1972 and the product was the Polaroid SX-70. Edwin Land had perfected the dramatic product launch, on stage with the new product in hand, over 30 years before Steve Jobs would give his now-legendary product launch presentations for Apple.
Exceeding expectations is what great communication is about
Great public speaking appearances by corporate leaders is nothing new. The most admired corporate leaders, visionary CEOs or the most successful entrepreneurs understand the value of great communication skills when it comes to enhancing their impact and influence.
Improve your public speaking game
One of the easiest ways to enhance your leadership influence and impact is to improve your public speaking skills. Generally, people are mediocre speaking in front of groups and yet it is a skill that is relatively easy to improve upon and an investment in yourself that you will be able to leverage many times over throughout a career.
By public speaking, I am not simply referring to the rare times when you stand up in front of a room full of people to present, although that is clearly important (and nerve-racking!). The most impactful way to improve your public speaking is in a different forum, the business meeting. The modern business day and week is mostly spent in meetings of one type or another.
Critical to improving your skills and reaping the benefits is to be self-aware. So ask yourself when you are in meetings, whether as the organiser or as a participant: how did you prepare for the meeting, how do you sit or stand in the meeting, do you give your full attention to the meeting and the participants or do you gaze out the window, perhaps you constantly check your phone for incoming (and obviously more) important messages. Do you know whether you put more energy into the room than you take out?
Your verbal and non-verbal communication is critical to how you are perceived and hence your effectiveness as a leader.
Leaders are conscious, self-aware of and deliberate with their body language and the words they utilise
I highly recommend investing time in improving your speaking and presentation skills. This investment could take many forms: from hiring a public speaking coach who specialises in the field or, as some people in my teams have done, take improv or stand-up comedy classes to prepare for the often-unscripted nature of a meeting. To be clear there are no quick fixes, real and consistent investment overtime is required to improve.
Personally, I have found one of the best ways to improve my own skills is to find the people within my workplace that have strong public speaking skills and imitate them. Watch how they present in front of a room or interact in meetings. Once you are on the lookout for the good speakers you will observe the good and bad traits and then be able to adjust your own actions.
A great alternative is to look for speakers from outside of your work and what better place than TED talks. I cannot recommend TED talks highly enough. There are so many great examples on TED.com for you to watch, enjoy and learn from. A personal favourite of mine is from Amy Cuddy (Your body language may shape who you are). I love the way Amy engages the audience on the topic of body language and gets them to do an audit of their own posture and non-verbal communication.
Amy says that as social scientists they
“…spend a long time looking at the effects of body language on judgements, we make sweeping judgements and inferences from body language.”
This emphasises a key point, “the non-verbals”, and how they influence others.
With this in mind, here are some of my top tips for improving your public speaking game:
1. Practice. Practice being bad until you are good
Take every chance available to speak to groups of people and practice your public speaking. There are so many opportunities once you are on the lookout for them e.g. graduate recruitment events, voluntary work, educating new joiners, in-house training, networking events etc. Get your practice in at these lower profile, lower risk events so you get being bad out-of-the-way.
Spend time ahead of important meetings to prepare for them so you don’t walk in blind. For example, read the pre-prepared meeting materials and research the agenda ahead of time, do you have a view on the topic and agenda, what is the most likely opinion of the others in the room, what is the likely outcome, what outcome will be acceptable to you?
When delivering presentations be sure to read through your material several times. Speak out loud to yourself. I recommend doing this several times interspaced with breaks where you have gone away and completed an unrelated task.
Know the format of the event, will you be sitting down, standing at a podium, around a table or standing in front of a group of people? Increasing your familiarity with the venue will help reduce the unknowns and generally increase your comfort level to offset the inevitable nerves.
3. Pause and breathe
Pauses are powerful. At first, they may seem unnatural and in fact, it will often appear (to you) that the pause goes on for too long (it won’t). The reality is that only two or three seconds will have past, which provides you time to think, look up and reconnect with the audience and that pause allows the audience to catch up with what you are saying.
4. Body language
Often overlooked as previously highlighted but critical to the impressions and inferences people make about you. Be conscious of how you hold yourself and (my personal favourite) what your hands are doing.
5. Stories make it personal
Use evocative and personal stories to bring your arguments or presentations to life. We all like to follow stories, stories are central to who we are.
6. Know your audience
Spend time getting to know your audience. Who will be in the room, who will you be speaking in front of, what is their likely opinion and viewpoint? Prepare for questions in advance and don’t be caught out because you didn’t anticipate the audience asking questions. You will come across with far more credibility and impact if you have facts and figures to hand and it will increase your self-confidence going into the event.
The best leaders know that good communication skills are essential to maximising their impact and influence. And that only through practice and investing time and effort will those skills develop.
It is not only pure public speaking skills that are important. It’s your mindset too, little things that become more important as you get more senior and your influence grows.
Do you think, or do you know?
Language in business is littered with business jargon, intentional bad grammar and the use of long words when short words will do. This is our reality and it shows no signs of abating. Lucy Kellaway, previously a Financial Times (FT) journalist, used to hand out awards for “…horrible use of language in business.” or “Guff” as she so aptly called it. She was scathing about “corporate claptrap” and had a loyal following that would readily send in the best (or worst) examples that they had come across in their work.
I mention this not to say leaders shouldn’t use jargon or long words (Lucy tried for over a decade but failed to change behaviour) but rather to highlight the now-common use of “I think…” as a condition to every statement business people are making.
Only use I think when you really are unsure about something or you are differentiating between the facts that you know versus those that you are unsure about and need further work to corroborate.
A leader doesn’t need to say I think when stating their opinion and point of view. It doesn’t protect you in any way. Have the confidence when articulating your opinion to not have to preface it with “I think” otherwise why are you at the table?
Do you think, or do you know?
BUT and AND
Have you ever noticed how the word but inevitably leads to an excuse about why it was not possible to achieve a goal, complete a task or project or deliver for your clients and stakeholders? For example,
“Jane, I know that we expected to increase our sales to client xyz this quarter, but they experienced significant staff turnover. We, therefore, weren’t able to speak to the key decision-makers and close the deals we had on the pipeline.”
But doesn’t make it ok that you did not do what you said you were going to do. But highlights a reactive approach and emphasises that you lost control and could not adapt.
We face a fluid and ever-changing environment with many, many things occurring that are outside of our control. A leader doesn’t make excuses, a leader replaces but with and. They acknowledge that something important happened and it was outside of their control. They aim to turn a negative event into an opportunity for a positive outcome, potentially generating alternate goals whose outcome could exceed the original. The and allows you to get on with your work
“Jane, client xyz where we expected to increase our sales during the quarter experienced significant staff turnover this quarter and so I spoke to Sarah over in marketing as she has a great relationship with her peer at xyz. She was able to make a call and put me in touch with the new decision maker allowing me to bring them up to speed and complete the sale. I also called the leavers to congratulate them on their new roles at client abc, we spoke about continuing our relationship when they start their new jobs which could help us grow sales at that client as well.”
A leader is proactive and thinks on their feet, able to handle unexpected events and reacts to keep up the forward momentum. A leader replaces but with and.
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