The Hardest "Soft" Skill of Them All
Allow me to share my favorite story about a “soft” skill that’s really hard: public speaking. There was a fellow in the sales side of publishing who got beet-red whenever he had to give a presentation. My then-publisher asked me if I thought sending him to Toastmasters was a good idea. He saw this fellow’s nervousness whenever he spoke in a public setting as a real damper on an otherwise rising career. I replied: “Send him tomorrow.”
We’ve often heard that the only fear which surpasses public speaking is the fear of death. Even if that’s hyperbole, for many people the fear of standing up in front of a group and talking borders on paralysis. (I’ve been more nervous speaking in front of a group than fighting in the NAGA World Jiu-Jitsu Championships.) Your mouth goes dry, your hands get shaky, your brain can’t settle on a single coherent thought and the self-doubt rages inwardly, because you begin to question yourself and everything you’ve prepared. (You have prepared, I hope.)
Here’s the bottom line. There is no single secret that will make all the apprehension go away. Unless you’re a “natural,” the type that can just stand up and start speaking without a care in the world, you probably have qualms if not outright fear. But without an ounce of exaggeration, I promise that if you follow these tips, the road to adequate — even superior — public speaking will emerge, and you’ll find yourself traveling down a path that’s not just comfortable, but downright gratifying the next time your speech ends with applause.
I am a professional public speaker (professional means that I get paid to do it), and here are what I consider the 11 commandments of public speaking.
Rule No. 1. It’s a process, not an event. That means for most of us, improvement comes during a period that can takes months, maybe even years, until you reach the plateau that you envisioned for yourself. If you were a natural, you wouldn’t have read this far, so expect to work at this public speaking soft skill.
Rule No. 2. Perspective. Accept the fact you’re NOT giving the State of the Union address to the nation. That’s my way of suggesting that while the speech or presentation might be critically important to you, the Earth will probably continue to turn on its axis regardless of the outcome of your speech. Yes, it matters to you, but there’s usually a tomorrow after your speech. I mention this under the heading of perspective, because if you place too much emphasis on it, you are more prone to become tense over the speech’s delivery and thus hurt your chances of a successful outcome. Relax as much as possible and put the presumed importance of your speech in context.
Rule No. 3. Audience. Ask any salespeople about their audience. While it might NOT be politically correct, not every audience is the same. The degree of experience, sophistication, education, background, interest and commonality plays a huge role in how you deliver your speech. Would you use the same vocabulary, tone and examples to a group of business owners as you might with high school seniors? Unlikely. Know your audience, and when you write your speech, NEVER forget who they are. Tom’s secret. When I have to address a group of people who are members of an organization, for example, I try to interview two or three members BEFOREHAND and learn about their pain and how my expertise can alleviate some of that discomfort. The audience will think I am smart and prescient. I’m neither. But I am prepared.
Rule No. 4. Prepare. Did I just mention prepare? Unless you’re dead sure of the audience, preparation matters — greatly. Many years ago, I had a professional speaker explain it in blunt terms: “Americans don’t like to prepare.” Well, maybe a bit of exaggeration, but you can never go wrong with having and knowing more than you need to…Just like a good writer might have more material than necessary, it makes the final product usually better because you have a broader range of topics, direction and stories from which to pull. Bill Scalia, a superb jiu-jitsu expert at Mission MMA in Westmont, N.J., told me one Saturday afternoon that everyone could get better at jiu-jitsu. Everyone. You just have to practice. He was so emphatic about the “everyone,” and I realized in a flash that in some areas, like public speaking, this practice idea applies too. I don’t believe that your career will spin out of control because you’re a lousy public speaker. However, having or improving your public speaking ability can be a major step in professional advancement and as a separating element from your peers.
Rule No. 5. The Idea. NEVER forget the single most important point. That’s EXACTLY the point: that you have ONE big idea you want to impart to the audience. Usually start with it somewhere early in the presentation, pepper it through with direct or indirect references and be sure to close with it. How do you arrive at this one idea? Simple. Just ask: What’s the ONE idea, concept, action … that I want the audience to leave with. And never be afraid of simplicity.
Rule No. 6. Toastmasters. I obviously made a big deal about practice. This is where you practice. There are very few organizations that charge so little and from which you gain so much benefit as Toastmasters. They’ve slightly changed their branding as a public speaking organization to leadership (though I suspect they understand the connection), but the environment is warm, friendly and encouraging, and you get a critique that is helpful but never mean-spirited. It’s difficult to praise this organization without my comments sounding like I’m a shill. But if you’re going to do any speaking on a regular basis, a foray into Toastmasters land is almost a necessity. You won’t be disappointed. What’s great about this is the ability to test your material. I have a standard opening when speaking about public relations and publicity that, with all due immodesty, knocks ‘em dead. My original opening was boring and I knew that I’d better spice it up or I was going to lose lots of people very quickly. I created the opening and tested it at a Toastmasters session. The reaction from the audience showed me that it was a home run. I’ve used it ever since. (Had it gone flat, I would have tried another opening.) Also, while a Toastmasters critique tends to be polite, it’s still probably more accurate than what you’ll get from coworkers. Is someone really going to tell the boss the point he made didn’t make sense?
Rule No. 7. Style. You will have to figure out what your style is. If you are actually funny and you can crack up a crowd, you might want to lace your speech with humor. If not, refrain. Do you prefer bullets, lots of notes or nothing (NEVER read a speech. It’s a mortal sin.)? This includes the setting and the time constraints. You can be great in one speaking setting and lousy in another. (see sidebar)
Rule No. 8. Language. Speak naturally. I’m not going to ask you to speak in a fashion that is alien to you. There are a few rules about what and how you say things that matter. First, try to eliminate the “uhms.” We’re all guilty of one or two, but after that it becomes almost maddening as you wait for the next one to pop up. Don’t be afraid of a pause or to take a tiny slice of silence. Also, beware of using a phrase too frequently. I’m guilty of “you know.” I don’t know if they’ve kept the practice at Toastmasters meetings, but they would have an “uhm” counter. At the end of the evening, he or she would recite the number of times each person used an “uhm.” The key is not to use a word or phrase so repeatedly that it becomes a distraction.
Rule No. 9. The Setting. Professional speakers want to see the room, the stage, the aisle and the position of a camera. They want to know their surroundings, including how the audio “carries” to the audience. This kind of preparation might seem like overkill, but to a pro, it is pro forma. For most people, some familiarity with the surroundings is helpful to prevent any mishaps. For example, if you’re calling someone down to the stage and you realize there’s a bump in the aisle, you’ll want to warn the volunteer striding down. Also, it will make you feel more relaxed as you take your position in front of the audience.
Rule No. 10. The Real Secret: Tell a Story. No matter what your voice sounds like, what you look like or the nature of your delivery, the one immutable law that keeps an audience or prevents them from dismissing you is to tell a story. Tell it with sincerity and passion. And passion doesn’t mean you have to be shouting or gesticulating. It means that you speak from the heart. Ever go to a funeral and are startled at how an “average” person moves you with their sincerity and specificity as they offer a touching tribute to the deceased? An audience recognizes sincerity and passion. Everything else is secondary.
Rule No. 11. Watch. If you really have the speaking bug, watch others via YouTube or other platforms. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Here’s a good example: Steve Jobs speaking at Stanford University’s 2005 graduation ceremony (http://bit.ly/IN1Lf8). Some people consider this a brilliant speech. It’s powerful. I should add that despite Steve Jobs’ superb performance, he breaks a basic rule, which is reading his speech. But when you’re Steve Jobs and you tell a great story, go ahead and break the rules.
Dying During the Speech
I once spoke at a major HVACR convention not because of my role as an editor but because I own a PR firm. It was all about free publicity for HVACR contractors. A wholesaler who I knew was at the presentation and asked me if I could be the master of ceremonies at his father’s retirement party. I guess he liked what he saw. We agreed on a price and booked the date.
I was a flop. What my audiences saw at the conference was a speaker who knew his subject cold, had a PowerPoint presentation, knew when to crack a joke, had a controlled environment and could rely on practice to make the presentation seem spontaneous. Was there improvisation and spontaneity? Yes. But there was also a great deal of structure.
At the retirement party, the podium opened out to a warehouse and the outdoors. People were milling about, and I didn’t have a captive audience. Food was available, so that became a competitor. Strangely, a son of the owner did better than a credible job at giving me assistance. He essentially saved the day.
I was so appalled at my performance that I never sent an invoice. It was a hard lesson. I learned that I wasn’t an emcee, which takes a degree of being extemporaneous that I didn’t possess. In a structured setting, I can actually be spontaneous, but if I miss the mark, I just move on and recapture the audience. An emcee has to repeatedly respond to the situation and decide within seconds. Since then, I’ve never taken any master of ceremony roles. But I still get very high marks when I speak about public relations and operating a small business. In short, I know where I’m good, and I shun areas where I’m weak. I don’t mind making this admission because I’m not selling my emceeing skills. Could I get better? Yes. But I lack the time, interest or patience to improve in this area. The instructional style of speaking is my métier. At the emcee level, I’m more of a dunce. And you can take that to the bank.