Tag Archives: public speaking

The Single Most Important Skill for Any Career

Noooo…it’s not the ability to be Cheesy MC guy.

My son has signed me up to come speak to his marketing class on Friday. Not a big deal, I did it for his older brother a couple years ago.

A couple of the questions include, “What does it take to be successful in your career field? ” and “What can a student start doing now to prepare for this career?”, which got me thinking.

Since I find myself more or less on my third or fourth “career” I think I can say with some level of expertise that there IS a singular skill that has been crucial for success in ALL of them. The ability to communicate. No wait, let me communicate that more concisely.

The one skill that can help propel any career forward is the ability to speak publicly. Whether you have to communicate progress to a superior, impart information to a team of co-workers, or address a crowd of hundreds of customers you’re going to have to have some level of competence as a public speaker.

Why is it then that “public speaking” consistently ranks in the top 10 things people fear most? We speak in public all the time! Those who only speak in private are typically diagnosed as being crazy in some way shape or form…or they own lots of cats.

There are LOTS of ways to answer that question but rather than taking that on allow me to provide three reminders that can help anyone either being to conquer their fear or just become a better speaker.

1. It isn’t about you.
Even when you’re telling someone about you you’re providing that information for a reason. Job interview? Not about you. It’s about them trying to find the right person. Selling a product? Not about you. It’s about them trying to solve a problem or meet a need. Speaking to a marketing class about your career? Not about you. It’s about helping them make choices about their future.

When you think about it in this way the pressure is off of you and on the information. When you realize it is about helping the audience get the information they need you can focus on the information and not worry about what they think of YOU.

2. Honesty IS the best policy.
If you’re being asked to present information to an audience there is an underlying assumption that you: a)know what you’re talking about and b) know more about it than the audience does.

If either of those statements is false admit it up front. You’ll either be let off the hook OR you’ll be given more information that may help shed light on the fact that you do INDEED know what you’re talking about.

In either case faking it is a bad idea.

3. Public speaking is a skill.
And like any other skill it needs to be practiced and polished. Even the most artful public communicators don’t just hop up and wing it every time. Even guys that seem to make it ALL up as they go, aka Robin Williams, have bits they practice and rehearse that keep them grounded in their skills.

Don’t think the way to overcome fear of public speaking, or to become a better communicator, is to merely avoid it or to get psyched up for it with a lot of coffee when forced into having to speak. Investing time in training and practice will pay off throughout every stage of your career, no matter what field.

Some of today’s headline politicians were rocketed into the limelight on the strength of a single speech. No matter which side of the political fence you’re on, even if you tend to straddle it, you can’t deny the power of being a good public communicator.

If you want to start honing your craft I CAN recommend an excellent opportunity coming up in October. Check out the SCORRE Conference.

In the meantime though…what is it about public speaking that causes you the most anxiety?


Four Tips for Helping People Understand You Better.

How often have you heard someone say, “I know that’s what I said, but what I meant was…” or some variation thereof?

Communication is an interesting animal. We use words to convey ideas and often struggle to find the right ones. Speaking of course is the worst because it is real time. All the editing typically happens between the head and the mouth.

Now, if you’re a poor conversationalist the tips I am about to provide probably won’t help you much. You’re better off renting The King’s Speech. What I want to work on here is how to be better understood in a more formal speaking setting. That being said, three tips:

1. Have a point.
Your point is NEVER “to provide information”. You always provide information FOR A REASON…and that reason is your point. If I just say, informationally, “You know you should always have a point when you open your mouth to speak”, you would nod and agree and still often be pointless.

My point here is to help you be a better communicator. To be clear here, when I say ‘have a point’ I mean something you can articulate in a single sentence. “The reason I am speaking to these people is…”

That sentence will become the anchor to which I attach all the information you are about to provide. Without it the information becomes overwhelming and floats off into the sunset like a boat one the waves.

2. Stick to the point.
If you’re being asked to speak you have information. You probably have enough information to speak for hours. But how much of that information supports your point?

In business setting I typically find that something like 50-60% of the information in any presentation really belongs in an appendix, stuff that supports the talk but isn’t directly connected to the main point. Leave all THAT stuff out. Save it for the Q&A at the end.

3. Consider you audience.
Whatever it is you’re communicating should have some relevance to why the audience is there. Otherwise your point becomes one of trying to prove how smart, or funny, or important you are.

I was struck by a thought today, and I confess I may have read this somewhere but if not then I want full credit:

“No one cares what you know until they know that you care.”

Granted there are exceptions to this. If the plane is going down and you know where the parachutes are I don’t care if you care about me, I just want to know what you know.

4. Sharpen your message to match.
Case in point: I hate the title of this post. It started as “The Power of Clarity” the morphed into the grammatically poor., “Four Reasons Why You Need to Be More Clear”.

Here’s what I know about my audience at this point. In general a phrase like “The Power of Clarity” is interesting, but it does not generate page views. If I want my audience to benefit from what I think I have to provide I have to start with a hook, something that will prompt YOU to read the post.

“The Power of Clarity” is informational. “Four Tips” conveys the notion that I care about helping you be better. Same information, same point, better connection to the audience.

What do you find to be the biggest challenge in being completely understood?

Two Reminders that Boost Communication

I really hadn’t intended to write on communication today but I was inspired by the conversation generated by Michael Hyatt’s post from yesterday: What Could Becoming a Better Speaker Make Possible for You?

Now, I don’t necessarily want to just cover “public speaking” here, though that certainly is a large part of it, but communication in general whether it is recorded, written, performed, transmitted…whatever. What I want to share with you are two reminders that I find really boost not only your message but your ability to communicate effectively across the board.

Reminder #1: It is NOT about you.
For years I have taught and coached at the SCORRE Conference mentioned in Michael’s blog where we train people to, among other things, be better public speakers. Did you know that there are studies that show the fear of public speaking ranks way above the fear of failure, the dark, and even death?

What we find at the conference is that a lot of folks who fear public speaking to that degree are highly worried about what people will think of them. But hang on, why are they speaking in the first place? To impress people? To make people love them? NO! Hopefully, unless they’re performing, they’re there to GIVE the audience something they NEED.

Imagine you’re on a cruise ship that is starting to tip over and you happen to be the only one in the room who knows the quickest route to the lifeboats. I’m HOPING you’ll turn into an instant public speaker and NOT be worried about what people will think of you when you start instructing them on how to get to safety.

In any form of communication, other than personal chit chat, the communicator is imparting information to the communicate-ee. How often do you intentionally communicate useless information? Never? Good, then your communication is ALWAYS about your audience.

Hear this and remember: It is NOT about you. It IS about your audience.

So you shouldn’t be worried about what they’ll think of you. You should be worried about whether they’ll understand you and the importance of what you have to tell them. Clarity is more important than cuteness.

Reminder #2: You need to know your audience as well as you know your information.
The follows naturally but it is really surprising how many people forget this one.

I get to speak on technical topics quite often. One of the topics I’ve been asked to cover is Business Intelligence…pretty broad topic really. If I go into the room expecting the audience is a technical one I cover the material from a certain perspective. If it is essentially a business audience I take a different approach. The preparation for those two talks is very different.

Imagine though that I’ve prepared the technical talk and I wind up with an audience of folks who just want to know more about the importance of BI in general, who may or may not even know what the term means other than something they’ve heard is important. DOH! I have that talk in the bag too but it is REALLY different that the other two!

Make the effort to know who is going to be on the receiving end of your communication and you’ll really ratchet up your effectiveness.

Knowing your stuff makes you the expert. Knowing the audience turns you into a trusted adviser.

How well do you know the audiences with whom you communicate? What can you do to understand them even more deeply?

A Simple Truth that Creates Better Communication

I spent the better part of this last week at the SCORRE Conference instructing folks on how to become better, more dynamic communicators.

Even though I have been a part of teaching this same material for close to twenty years I still discover something new about communicating almost every time we get together for the conference.

Imagine with me two different scenes:

Scene 1

The year is 1970. Disco hasn’t quite made it’s appearance on the scene yet but like a fowl smell on the breeze it is coming. Plaid shirts and corduroy pants with widely flared legs are quite the style. You make your way through the doors of the New Bank of My Town to transfer your account, the dulcet tones of the Girl from Ipanema playing softly in the background. Within moments, your transaction complete, you stroll back out the door, smiling, with a brand new toaster under your arm!

Scene 2

It’s your birthday! You wake up hoping that folks will remember but not quite ready to wear a sign on your chest announcing the importance of the day. You arrive at work and find an envelope on your desk. Inside is a card directing you to the break room. You smile to yourself thinking someone has gathered the crew together for coffee and donuts but when you get to the break room you find…another card. The process repeats itself several times. Each clue leading you somewhere else in the building until finally one leads you back out to your car! Surprised an curious you make your way back out to the car and notice a wrapped present on the front seat. You climb in and eagerly tear open the wrapping to find a toaster and note. “Please come join me for breakfast. Happy Birthday!”

In either case you get a toaster. Cool, you needed a toaster. So what’s the difference? The process of receiving.

Too often as communicators we get in a hurry to deliver the goods. Like the bank that gives away the free toaster we give our audience exactly what they expect. In our desire to provide them some benefit in exchange for listening, like the bank wants to  in exchange for our business, we lay the good right our there to be picked up and taken home.

Allow me to suggest three reasons our communication should be more like birthday treat than a bank toaster.

1. The joy of discovery

People, in general, like surprises especially pleasant ones. Whether we’re giving a speech, a sermon, or a product presentation people like those moments of surprise when they get more than they anticipated getting at the start.

2. The appreciation of elegance

Folks recognize when you’ve taken the time and made the effort. Even the simple difference between tossing a birthday present into someones lap unwrapped and handing them a well wrapped package catches peoples attention. It communicates that you care enough about the recipient to make the presentation part of the gift rather than just doing your duty. Even if you’re overly excited to give them their present they’ll appreciate the time and attention you took in the wrapping of it.

3. The effect of effort

If I walk into the bank expecting a toaster and get what I expect I critically examine to toaster to see if it matches my expectations. If, on the other hand, I get a surprise gift I am moved by the surprise and look at the toaster from an attitude of continued discovery to see what it has to offer. You audience will to your communication in the same way. Either with a critical eye to see if you’re delivering on the promise you dumped out in the your agenda, introduction, hand-out etc. OR with an eye towards discovering what you’re offering in a carefully crafted surprise package.

Whether you’re giving a speech, preaching a sermon, or writing a blog post don’t just dump it in their lap. Take the time to wrap the gift so that your audience can experience the joy of discovery and the appreciation of elegance. You will see the effect of your efforts. They’ll get the toaster either way but they’ll be moved by the surprise in a way that makes them appreciate you every time they make toast.

How can you make your communications more like a wrapped present that surprises and delights?