Public speaking = a necessary evil for managers?

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak in front of 100+ people, including fellow employees (among them our high flying execs), external groups, and the media. I almost fainted when I received the news. All I could imagine was looking like this kid…

Since then, I have been observing various managers in my company and their relative public speaking ability. We all know that great leaders are typically amazing public speakers (think Martin Luther King Jr. rather than George W. Bush). However, I am learning more and more just how important good public speaking skills is to becoming a great manager (and not just a sports coach or political leader). This is a shame because public speaking is so feared that it has its own phobia name: glossophobia. Jerry Springer made an astute observation / joke about public speaking once:

I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing – number two was death! That means to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

Why public speaking is must have skill for managers

From “rigorous” research after weeks of observing other corporate leaders, I believe here are some reasons why public speaking is a necessary evil to becoming a good manager (no matter what organization / sector you are in).

  • Communicate your key points and messages clearly and convincingly: For me, this was particularly apparent during conversations about budget and resource allocation. For managers that could clearly get your message across, then to them the spoils go.
  • Build credibility: Stuttering, limited eye contact, and plenty of filler words don’t exactly inspire confidence. Thus, people may automatically dismiss you even before they actually listen to your content (no matter how good it is).
  • Inspire and move people to action: As mentioned earlier, this is a key part of a manager / an organizational leader’s responsibility, marshaling the necessary people and enabling them to accomplish certain objectives. This is much easier if you can rally your team like Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.

How to improve your public speaking ability

In preparation for my dreaded speech, I’ve been on a quest to improve my oratory ability. Here’s what I picked up so far as some critical must have’s for a convincing speech:

  • Get the mechanics right: These are the basic foundation for a great speech, including: no stuttering, no filler words, look confident and make good eye contact, insert natural pauses, place your hands, feet, and body in natural position (vs. wringing your hands or putting them in your pockets). The list goes on…
  • Identify your key messages and keep them simple: People have attention spans shorter than a dog in a park full of squirrels. Therefore, it’s crucial to figure out what are the key 1 to 3 takeaways you want to impart on your audience. Once you have identified those messages, you need to embed them in you speech in a simple, direct, and highly digestible way. A tactic that some politicians use is the “tell them” method. (1) Tell them what you’re about to tell them; (2) Tell them; (3) Summarize what you just told them.
  • Use the power of stories and stats: Since childhood, we’re all programmed to pay attention and listen to stories. Embedding vivid and interesting stories in your speech will make it more memorable. It’s also important to incorporate some statistics in your story (if relevant) to establish more credibility in your messages (so it doesn’t sound like you’re just making everything up.)
  • Speak authentically: Bill Clinton is the king of connecting with this audience and speaking as if he’s just chatting with you over a beer. The most inspirational and moving speeches are those that come from the heart. Ok, but how do you do that? I think the most important elements to convey authenticity include: (1) revealing something personal (not too embarrassing…but much like the one in the Al Pacino video above), (2) understanding your audience and tailoring your speech to their interests / concerns, (3) believing in your message, and (4) injecting some emotion in your speech by changing your speaking pace, volume, and non-verbals.

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