Do you wish you could speak with every audience member individually? You can make it seem that way! Here's how to transform your public speaking presence.
Public speaking should be a transformative event—for audience and speaker alike. So, why is that so seldom the case?
Let’s discuss how presence in public speaking can go much further than simply an interesting performance. Developing genuine presence isn’t just a question of acquiring new skills. It’s also a process of true growth, and one that involves a practical transformation.1
One of the ways this transformation occurs is to take you as a subject matter expert and make you into something totally different: a radically good speaker. ‘Radical’ because it involves a change in your mindset, one that alters your entire approach to speaking. You can of course be an expert and not come across as an engaging presenter. In fact, that’s a daily occurrence everywhere in the world. We might say it’s a mistake that many otherwise brilliant people make.
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What Does a Good Speaker Look and Sound Like?
When anyone asks me whom I consider to be the best public speakers, I usually say that it depends upon what they’re looking for. Indeed, ‘best’ is a relative term with many variables that can be part of the mix.
For example, if you’re looking for openness, honesty, and vulnerability, former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is an outstanding example. You'll find a similarly easy style, combined with a skill in connecting with the audience, in health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Want quiet authoritative presence combined with expertise? Well, there's New York's Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis and his TED talk, "Why Theater Is Essential to Democracy."
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But aren’t all leaders good speakers? Actually no—and not by a long shot. There are many flavors of public speakers, with delicious selections in terms of who qualifies as the best in any dimension. And let's face it, even the speakers I've named above are my choices, and your opinion may be quite different.
Presence Goes Beyond Presentation Skills
Being an effective leader who speaks is not necessarily equated with powerful presentation skills. On any day you'll find successful professionals who aren't effective—or even interesting—at the lectern. Public speaking is an art; and it’s a very different one from running a company or organization. And if it doesn't actually require an entirely new skill set, it does involve closely understanding the task at hand and using social skills to greatest effect.
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Ignoring doing so can have serious consequences as to how you’re viewed in your profession, something that’s all-important to a leader. For instance, consider the scientist who attends conferences all over the world, only to be disappointed at the speaking skills of otherwise brilliant researchers. Such speakers have neglected any performer’s main task: that of connecting with the audience.
Like all staged events, public speaking is a form of community, one that’s all about what’s happening in the moment. And the key to doing it well is pulling off a magic trick. I mean, transforming your ability to speak to many into appearing to speak to one. That is what it should feel like to each audience member. Your job is always to reduce the psychological distance between you and listeners. It’s the difference between a leader speaking, and speaking for leadership.
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Why You Have Everything You Need
If you’re thinking that you don’t know how to make that leap—from speaking on a topic to having an intimate conversation with an audience—please understand that it’s not a leap at all. If you’ve been focused only on trying to be good, you’ve actually been avoiding getting close to listeners. And of course, you’ve been putting way too much pressure on yourself.
The alternative is much easier. Simply focus on serving your audience’s needs, and trying to make them understand what you’re saying. And please don’t worry about being too vulnerable. When you appear before an audience, whether live or virtual, you are vulnerable. Far from reacting negatively if they see that you’re human, the audience will understand and accept it!
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Truly, you have everything you need to develop significant stage presence. I have many clients, for instance, who speak successfully even though they stuttered as children. They found a way to focus not on a problem that was limiting them, but on the speaker-audience relationship and how they could tap into it. They were, in fact, eager to do so. Therefore, they worked over time to eliminate the obstacle that was holding them back.
These people understood that their job was to get their message through to people so they too could feel strongly about it. For them, and for you as well, it’s not so much the subject matter as it is the conversation you’re having with your audience about it. So, get on that wavelength.
1 Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, Leadership Presence (New York: Gotham, 2003), 234-235.
This article is excerpted from my book, Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets. Click below to get your copy!
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in videoconferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. Contact Gary here.