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Speak for Success!

"Be a voice not an echo." - Albert Einstein

How to Speak Like a Leader: 5 Skills You Need to Master

Few things demonstrate leadership and give it a public face like a keynote speech. High-visibility events give you both a platform and the spotlight to be recognized and admired in your industry.

I was reminded of this last week at a conference I attended. As is usually the case, keynotes and panels were the order of the day. It’s always interesting to watch high-profile individuals either excel or struggle in these situations. Among other things at stake, of course, are reputation and future effectiveness.

(To speak with impact and move your own audiences to actiondownload my free cheat sheet,“4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker.”)

The King of Public Speaking Apps

These days, to lead is to speak in a variety of forums—everything from sales pitches to conversations with key individuals to videos and webinars. But the monarch of public speaking appearances is still the keynote speech at a conference or convention. Let’s call it the King of Public Speaking Apps.

At the healthcare conference I attended, the keynote speakers (there are always more than one at meetings of this type) displayed a range of skills and styles. One speaker, for instance, created instant buzz—I heard more than one person remark afterwards on how visionary his speech was. Another speaker, accomplished yet soft-spoken, made it difficult for listeners to stay tuned; while a third was apologetic and nervous—you’ve probably seen a similar mix of speakers many times.

As I listened to this line-up of keynoters, I started thinking about the skills that an effective speaker needs to demonstrate to give the impression of leadership. I came up with five key attributes, listed below. 

Like everything I write about concerning public speaking, these attributes have to do with effective performanceThat is, leaders must know, they must care, and they must see, in terms of having a vision. But to motivate, inspire, and speak with stage presence and charisma, they must also show. That’s what these five skills are all about.  Here, then, are the ways to demonstrate leadership in terms of performance dynamics in keynote speeches:

#1 Take Time to Connect with Your Audience

Keynote speaking—or speaking in any high-stakes situation—usually brings about nerves and self-consciousness. It also almost certainly creates a surge of adrenalin in the bloodstream. This can make a speaker fly through a speech, paying close attention to the material to be delivered but ignoring the connection with one’s audience.

(Anxious at the start of your presentations before you feel at ease? Here's how to get over the "awful first two minutes.")

At the conference I just attended, it was actually the moderator of the panel discussions, more than the keynote speakers, who took the time to establish rapport with her listeners. She told a story about her mother, another about herself in grade school, and a third about a close relationship with someone who should have been her adversary. Even the brilliant speaker (the one who created buzz) didn’t accomplish this key task. So we should all ask ourselves: Do we want to be recognized as an expert who maintains his or her distance, or one who knows how to engage listeners with warmth and humor, even in the midst of all that expertise?

#2 Be in Control

To show that you’re a leader who’s perfectly comfortable in the speaking spotlight, simply take your time. Too many speakers don’t. The breathless presenter is the one who exhausts the audience, even though he or she is the one who’s been working hard while listeners have been sitting still.

The world of the actor has a marvelous device for teaching us how to do this. It’s a concept called beats. A beat is a character’s intention, which the actor plays until the intention is fulfilled or frustrated, at which time another beat begins.

You can use the same device in terms of your main points: where do you finish one, and begin the next one? These are the places where you should pay special attention to pausing, and letting your audience take a mental breath. Pause. Allow the audience to breathe. See how it works? Listeners will both relax and follow you more easily.

(To learn more about speaking for leadership, with some great examples, read my article, "The 7 Leadership Qualities of Great Speakers.")

#3 Stand at Your Ease (Use Natural Body Language) 

The ideas you express are centrally important to achieving the influence you desire. But your body is one of the essential tools you use to accomplish that task.

Too many of us become talking heads in high-profile speeches, particularly those where a lectern is involved. But what’s dynamic about a speaking statue placed behind a block of wood? If you’re anxious about speaking to a large audience and uncertain of your skills as a leader, this is where it will show.

If you don’t know how already, learn to become grounded, i.e., stand with your feet flat on the floor, at the width of your armpits or shoulders. You’ll appear steady, steadfast, and strong. If you’re using a lectern, your notes will be sitting on the top, so your hands will be free. Use them! And if you feel the urge to move away from that piece of furniture, by all means do that too. A speaker who steps away from the lectern from time to time appears completely at ease—an essential attribute in a leader addressing an audience. Here's more helpful information on this topic: "5 Key Body Language Tips of Public Speaking."

#4 Be Totally Committed to Your Ideas

Yes, I know you already are—but do you show it? Think of the leaders we recognize as passionate speakers: the Martin Luther King, Jr. of “I Have a Dream,” the Ronald Reagan of “Tear down this wall!” or Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her powerful TED Talk “My Stroke of Insight.” These speakers weren’t delivering words—they were living them at the moment they were speaking.

As an actor, I tell my clients: A fundamental difference between stage performers and speaking professionals doesn’t have a thing to do with knowledge, passion, or even commitment. It doeshave to do with how those things are displayed. If you’re not a passionate speaker (and by now you should know this about yourself), work on how you can externalize your emotional responses. That’s what actors are trained to do. And that’s what your audience is depending upon you to do as well, so they can be as turned on by your ideas as you are.

#5 Stay Loose, You Goose

I mean this mostly in terms of questions, challenges, and propositions posed to you by your audience. But I don’t only mean it that way.

The desire to be seen as knowledgeable and dynamic usually makes us tighten up, and so reveal that we don’t in fact believe deep down that we have those attributes. Staying loose physically and mentally instead can give exactly the opposite impression. Besides, if you don’t know something, you won’t suddenly acquire that knowledge through a burning desire when you’re in the spotlight.

At last week’s conference, I saw examples of speakers caught flat-footed in this way. It seemed obvious, to me at least, from the moment of hesitation before an answer flowed. And there’s the word to aim for: flow. It’s easy to understand, isn’t it, that this has to do with both knowledge of content and ease at nonverbal communication?

Watch the speakers at the next conference you attend. Do they give the impression of looseness, of ease and a light touch? Then think about your own performances. If you’re in doubt, enlist the aid of those performance friends—the mirror and video camera—who, as always, are happy to lend their advice and support.

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Tags: body language,influential speaker,credibility,communication skills,influence,acting techniques for business,presentation training,charisma,leadership,presntation skills

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