It’s 2008 at a nonprofit conference full of breakouts and public speakers. Up at the lectern was the director of a nonprofit doing fantastic work with the homeless. I long admired her work and anticipated hearing her talk. Yet that day I was practically bleeding from the ears with boredom. This woman, who lead an impressive nonprofit, sounded as interesting as a file clerk at the department of motor vehicles. What happened?
Most of us don’t craft our presentations to be spectacular, we design them not to be disasters. This is Defensive Speaking, which is similar to doctors who practice Defensive Medicine. It’s the investment of scarce resources making sure we don’t foul up royally as opposed to devoting our energy towards attempting the incredible.
Thus most of our presentations are boring because the majority of presentations we sit through are boring. Everyone is trying so hard not to look like a fool that very few are brilliant. This won’t cut it anymore. In a world with tsunamis of information, being average is as good as being invisible.
Mediocre presentations hurt our organization. Whether speaking at an event we organized or addressing a group convened by others, somebody is investing a lot of time and energy to bring this audience together. Appearing before a group of real live people is an enormous chance to move them, to inspire them, to excite them about our mission. Second-rate talks are an opportunity lost.
A limp address encourages a good chunk of the audience to think certain thoughts: “Their leaders are lifeless”, “Their future is not bright”, “They’re not worthy of my donation or time”, “They’re not doing well”. No matter how critical our work is, we can’t afford the public coming to these damaging conclusions.
This is why all of us have to make public speaking a core competency throughout our organization. If you don’t believe me, will you believe the richest man alive? Warren Buffett once told a group of aspiring entrepreneurs he would pay those in the room $100,000 for 10 percent of their start-up. If they were good presenters, he would raise his bid by 50 percent because public speaking would make his ‘investment’ more valuable.
With that in mind, here are seven reasons why we need to elevate public speaking to the top of our professional development list:
1) Speaking Is A Competitive Advantage
So many high profile leaders are tepid as public speakers. If we can do it well, it gives us a leg up on even established figures. All we need to do is better than average at which point we stand head and shoulders above the crowd. Especially since most people don’t even try to become average speakers.
2) Speaking Makes Us Powerful
Standing behind the lectern or on the podium is a power position. Be it before 10, 100 or 1000. Just being there covers us in an aura of authority. It is from this point that
it snowballs. The more people hear us, the more people want to hear us. Our name comes up more often in conversation. We develop a strong reputation for expertise and thus others consider us the Thought Leader for our subject.
3) Speaking Is Leadership
There are no leaders without followers. There will be no followers unless we first stand up and induce people to join our ranks. We will change hearts and minds by learning how to persuade. This is a major aspect of leadership. Leaders must lead transformation and speaking skills are essential to this capacity.
4) Speaking Sharpens Our Thinking
Pitch competitions have become ubiquitous in the past decade. These 5 minute presentations of a concept drive the investment of millions of dollars each year. However, the discipline to construct a pitch may have more value than the resulting competition. Sometimes we see speakers deliver a grab bag of thoughts and points which eventually meander into a meaningless puddle. It’s as important to know what to leave out as it is what to include. Consider how Michelangelo reportedly expressed his approach to sculpting a block of stone, “I see the sculpture inside it. All I have to do is remove what doesn’t belong.” Applying this same strategy to our talks helps us clarify what’s truly important.
5) Speaking Helps Us Connect People
TED Talks are everywhere; Amazon, Netflix, TED.com The big TED affair and the junior TEDx events bring together some of the brightest people in the world to speak on a variety of topics. The truly memorable speakers are ones who have mastered the art of storytelling. They leave us not only caring about the subject matter, but caring for the speaker as well. When we speak in a way that is honest and empathetic, public speaking makes us a ‘people’s champion’. Connecting with our personal stories, sharing who we are and soon we’ll be amazed at how our audience will connect with us.
6) Speaking Is For Changemakers
Who do we trust more? Is it the voice spoken to our faces or the meme posted on Facebook? Personal communication mediums are more effective for influencing others methods because in addition to words we convey, our audience can hear our vocal variety, read our body language and bask in our smile. This is known as ‘richness’ and it matters in communication. It matters A LOT. A person speaking to us will always be more convincing than an email or a tweet. We could spend our professional lives talking to one person at a time, but think how much more change we can drive when speaking to an audience of 500 versus one-on-one. That’s serious changemaking!
7) Speaking Reignites Our Passion
If we want to stir others, we first have to inspire ourselves. Why are we doing this work? What drives our fervor for the mission? Why do we so urgently seek to change the world? Stephen Covey, who wrote The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, once noted that we often get so caught up with dealing with issues along our path that we forget why we are on that path in the first place. The act of getting up and telling our story refocuses our attention on what is important and reignites our passion for our work.
Look out, Here Comes The Future
So what will make the difference in the new age of leadership? It’s having a captivating presence with compelling stories, ideas that engage and excite an audience, plus organizations that have meaning; these are things that the public wants. Thus we are more than just our words. We must think of our organization as a storytelling business, not just a random collection of dry facts and figures.
Keep in mind our previous point, in a world with tsunamis of information, being average is as good as being invisible. It’s time for you to stand out from the crowd.
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POSTSCRIPT: where to start? The answer is Toastmasters. As my fellow international speaker and colleague Tammy Miller frequently proclaims, “Best personal improvement program out there”. She’s right. In an age where the importance of public speaking is becoming monumental, Toastmasters is the easiest place to get traction towards crafting your style and message. The motto of Toastmasters is Where Leaders Are Made and this is not overselling their impact upon us.
Photo credit: Nadine Dereza