You can be an expert and not give an engaging speech! Here's how to avoid committing this mistake even brilliant speakers make.
Recently, a client asked me who I considered to be the best public speakers.
"It depends," I answered, as I often do, "on what you're looking for." And indeed, "best" in terms of speakers is a relative term, with lots of variables (and value judgments) in the mix.
For openness, honesty, and vulnerability, Sheryl Sandberg is an outstanding example. You'll find a similarly easy style, combined with a skill at connecting with the audience, in health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Looking for clarity combined with a dynamic style? SAP's CEO Bill McDermott is your speaker. And if it's a presenter who achieves a quiet authoritative presence while exploring a fascinating topic, that's New York's Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, in his TED talk, "Why Theater Is Essential to Democracy."
Want to develop a powerful speaking style? Download my free ebook, "12 Easy Ways to Achieve Presence and Charisma." Stand out for all the right reasons!
Aren't All Leaders Good Speakers?
There are many flavors, then, and a delicious variety in terms of public speakers who qualify as the "best" in any dimension. And let's face it, the individuals I've named above might be my choices as a speech coach, but that's just my personal opinion.
My client then asked, "What about . . . ?" and went on to name a few corporate leaders. She is a business woman, so these names came easily to her. If she were a scientist, the speakers she asked about might well have been from the world of science; likewise if she were focused on economics, politics, or any other field.
That is, it's a natural thought progression to go from, "This person is a leader in my field," to "He or she must be a good speaker." But being an effective leader doesn't make one a powerful presenter. In fact, on any day the world over, you'll find brilliant people who aren't effective—or even interesting—at the lectern. Public speaking is simply a different endeavor from running a corporation (for instance). And if it doesn't actually require an entirely new skill set, it does involve understanding the task at hand and consciously applying yourself to it.
Your Job Right Now Is Bonding with Your Audience
In this regard, I often think of the comment a physician made to me when I was conducting a presentation skills training for doctors. This was a daylong workshop at a Boston hotel for physicians in one particular medical specialty from abroad.
At lunch, this doctor who happened to be sitting next to me, said: "You know, we have such a need for training like this in medicine. I often travel internationally to hear an expert in my field—Dr. So-and-So who has been doing groundbreaking work for years. So I'm excited about hearing this speaker. And when he [or she] gets to the podium, they bury their face in their notes and start droning on. And in five minutes, everyone in the audience is bored to death!"
Such a speaker has misunderstood—or perhaps never paid any attention in the first place to— his or her job as a speaker: to connect with the audience in terms of shared communication. Like theater, public speaking is a form of community. It's live and in-the-moment, and one's abilities outside of the lecture hall aren't all that important to the speaker-audience dynamic. Public speaking is an event—and speakers need to be good at it to make the audience's efforts to get there and listen worthwhile. Accomplished leaders aren't always ready to learn this lesson when they venture into the oral arena of speech performance. And you don't have to be a keynote or motivational speaker to be thinking along these lines.
How to Speak as a Leader (Even If You're an Expert)
And there is the crux of the issue: understanding the difference between a leader speaking, and speaking for leadership. 'Brilliant speaker,' that is, is a two-word combination and concept. In terms of public speaking success, it can never be 'brilliant' speaker. We're talking, that is, about true stage presence.
Of course, we don't have to be responsible for a corporation, a new wonder drug, or a society-changing economic theory to accept that we ourselves might be in this camp. Expertise may get you to that lecture hall; but it can't accomplish what you need to do now, which is to make a connection in real time with eager listeners. As I often tell clients, "You need to have a better relationship with your audience than with your notes."
Or perhaps we can say silently to ourselves: "You can stop being an expert now . . . it's time to become a speaker."
You should follow me on Twitter here.