Shaun Thomson, CEO of Sandler Training UK, gives his top advice for public speaking from an executive perspective.
It’s well documented that many people find the thought of public speaking more frightening that going to the dentist, handling spiders or even death! Even the most seasoned CEOs can find public speaking frightening, or at best, uncomfortable. The most common issue that CEOs have to overcome with public speaking is overcoming their nerves.
There are many psychological studies about how nerves can affect a speaker. Typically nerves normally manifest themselves in the same way in each gender. Men tend to go ‘monotone’ – to get through a speech the man will deliver the speech quickly in the same tone, which is incredibly uninspiring for a listener and makes it a struggle to follow what is being said. Women tend to go quite high and screechy – they speak fast and again it makes it very uncomfortable for the audience. Both issues need to be overcome for the CEO to be a successful public speaker.
People grow in stature and confidence when they become better at public speaking. For CEOs, this is crucial as this confidence can also have an impact on their bottom line. After all, confident leaders are more believable; it enhances their credibility and people believe that they are an authority – which makes both customers and employees feel more comfortable and encouraged to deal with them.
CEOs that are good public speakers are also asked to represent the company externally much more often, which gives them excellent exposure and raises their profile. This can span industry events and also media interviews. A CEO that doesn’t like public speaking will invariably resist broadcast PR opportunities and will certainly not want to do anything live.
The good news is that public speaking is a skill. This means it that can be improved. There are obvious tips like ensuring you have prepared etc., but that in itself will not change a CEO’s mindset. To do that requires a fundamental rethink. Here are five practical ways that CEOs can get better at public speaking:
- What actually matters: It’s craziness that many nervous public speakers are overly concerned with what it is they are saying. In reality, this isn’t the priority. When it comes to speeches the ratio of importance is 80% delivery and 20% content. Everyone can improve delivery and use best practice in delivery as a basis for all future speaking engagements. Good delivery is about engaging the audience – standing up, giving them audience eye contact and varying the tone, pitch and vocalics so they don’t get bored. The worst delivery, which should be avoided at all costs, is sat down, reading words from a PowerPoint, sat down, whilst talking fast and looking clearly uncomfortable.
- Know the approach: There are four different ways you can approach a speech – impromptu (off the cuff – not recommended – only serious pros can pull this off), scripted (that’s the one that usually sounds monotone and audiences hate most), memorised (you aren’t an actor so don’t try this – you’ll end up looking up at the ceiling and taking too fast) – the last one that is best for public speaking is ‘extemporaneous’ delivery – this is where the speaker uses some note cards or prompts that guide them from point to point, but their own words as they go along. This approach also gets more comfortable the more the speaker does it.
- Choose your takeaway: Every form of public speaking is rooted in persuasion. What, exactly, is the point of your speech? What is the action that you want your audience to take? You need to be completely clear on these points and gear the content accordingly. Keep the speech as focused as possible to and if you take questions at the end make sure you finish by reaffirming the action you want people to take.
- Strip the negatives: During the practices make sure you strip out any negative wording or phrases – self-deprecating and apologetic comments just set the wrong tone. Practising will also make sure you learn to speak eloquently and get rid of those annoying umms and ahhs that people sometimes do to link sentences when they are nervous. Try and be word perfect for the first five minutes and then you’ll be on a roll as the nerves will have subsided – then you can move to ‘extemporaneous’ delivery.
- Visit the venue: This is especially important if you are a nervous speaker as it takes an ‘unknown’ out of the equation – you can familiarise yourself with the surroundings, where you will be standing and the AV equipment. Also, make sure that you arrive early and meet other speakers (if appropriate) – this again will help relax you and ensure that your nerves have settled as you aren’t panicking or in a rush.