Public speaking is as important as ever for business leaders

In the digital age, delivering a live, in-person message is more powerful than ever before. But, while the art of rhetoric still carries historical weight, a modern approach is the only way to reach a contemporary audience

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Donald Trump is a key exponent of the modern tenets of public speaking. His style defies all rules of classical rhetoric, yet he manages to connect with and rouse audiences on an emotional level

There are certain traits that set leaders apart. The ability to maintain a clear, forward-thinking vision, swift adaptability, proactivity and reliability are the most commonly touted for CEOs, but there is also another. This additional skill may not be essential to the job itself, but it is what turns a good leader into a fantastic one.

“A good speaker should inspire. You can be a great person with an amazing experience, but a very boring speaker because you don’t move or motivate the audience. To touch people and make an impact, you need to be authentic, humble, and have a lot of charisma”, said Richard Attias, founder of the Clinton Global Initiative and Nobel Laureates Conference, and producer of the World Economic Forum between 1993 and 2006.

Being an excellent speaker can motivate an entire workforce, unleash a wealth of new possibilities, and even rouse a generation. Yet, as beneficial as public speaking and participating in seminars, events and conferences can be for one’s profile and organisation, there are those who attempt these things with precious little success, or avoid them altogether. Though oratory is a skill that comes naturally to few, it is one that can be learnt and mastered by the rest.

Feel the nerves
Several famous speeches deserve a mention when it comes to the topic of public speaking. Of course, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill come to mind, and yet, while their speeches will never be forgotten, the art of public speaking has changed significantly since their time.

“Most people haven’t caught up”, noted Cam Barber, professional speaker, speaking coach and author of the book What’s Your Message? Public Speaking with Twice the Impact, Using Half the Effort. “The old mechanical performance mentality needs to change so people can connect with listeners.

“Donald Trump is an example of this evolution. By the old approach, Donald Trump would be considered a terrible speaker, but he is able to make a powerful connection with his core audience, and he delivers vivid messages that even his opponents repeat. Richard Branson and Bill Gates are also examples of this change; neither of them have the stage gravitas of Churchill, JFK or Martin Luther King, but they seem genuine and deliver vivid messages that change people’s minds.”

An excellent speaker can motivate an entire workforce, unleash a wealth of new possibilities, and even rouse a generation

When asked what makes a good public speaker, Barber responded with three key points: “The ability to deliver a vivid message that can be recalled and hopefully repeated; the ability to connect with an audience and be believable; and the ability to bring an idea to life.”

Naturally, confidence is essential in public speaking. While it is normal to be nervous when speaking in front of a large crowd, as Mark Twain once said: “There are only two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and the liars.” Experts recommend speakers, particularly those new to the game, use their nerves to their benefit. It is also worth noting that being nervous discourages complacency, which in turn pushes speakers towards preparation and practice.

Of course, some speakers will always profess that winging it works best when aiming to sound natural, but leaving things to chance, especially for a make-or-break presentation, is far too risky a strategy. A speech must be prepared as far in advance as possible to ensure there is enough time to practice, practice, practice. Going over a speech repeatedly and watching playbacks leaves less room for error on stage. That said, accepting a speech cannot be repeated word for word is equally important. Understanding slight changes can be made when speaking allows for flexibility and flow, so that, when a sentence is not spoken precisely in accordance with the notes, it does not stop the speaker in their tracks and  cause them to fumble.

Barber argues a big myth that causes nerves is the importance placed on body language, with many believing the misunderstood ‘fact’ that 90 percent of the impact one makes is non-verbal. Indeed, in his book Barber explains his discussion with the author who first shared this statistic, who went on to tell him that it actually relates to contradictory messages.

“Put simply, if your visual signals and/or vocal tone contradict the words you are saying, the visual signals will be given more weight by your listener”, Barber wrote. “The biggest mistakes are trying to orchestrate body language and worrying too much about a perfect performance. This creates an environment for more anxiety. The association of public speaking with acting and stage performance must be cut. Why? Because if you believe you need the skills of a Shakespearean actor to be an effective speaker or CEO, you’ll perceive public speaking as a Herculean task. It puts ridiculous pressure on the typical businessperson to change who they are just to explain an idea or bring an idea to life in front of an audience. Yet this association is so stuck in some people’s minds that they use 10 times more effort and energy preparing and delivering a speech than they need to.”

From the heart
Another way to use fear is to channel it into excitement. When a speaker is truly passionate about their subject, this will be detected by the audience, who will, in turn, be enthused. Passion goes hand in hand with authenticity. Essentially, it is crucial speakers are themselves when on stage if they are to have any chance of connecting with their audience. Trying to put on a better version of oneself can often come across as insincere, or even calculated. To avoid doing so, it is advised the individual speaks in a natural tone, and even imagines they are having a one-on-one conversation. This allows a more natural discussion, as monotony is the enemy of any speech.

In terms of connecting with the audience, one effective tool many successful speakers use is storytelling. Starting a speech with a story, preferably one that is personal to the speaker, is a sure way to capture interest and get listeners engaged. Indeed, storytelling is far more effective than simply proffering facts and figures, which not only create a dull atmosphere, but are also very unlikely to be retained by audience members.

Giving your own personal experience can also help to impart your own personality and provide a certain level of familiarity, which again helps a speaker to connect with their audience. Being genuine does, however, require plain speaking. Many novice speakers believe they must demonstrate how intelligent and qualified they are to justify speaking in front of an audience about a particular subject, and so feel the need to use technical and complicated vocabulary. Speakers must remember the fact they are giving a speech in the first place demonstrates they are qualified to do so, and that they possess information and advice not known by their entire audience. Thus, speaking clearly so you are completely understood is essential, while using grandiose and technical words can distance audience members, lose their interest, and give off a disingenuous persona.

Some speakers will always profess that winging it works best when aiming to sound natural

Modern symposia
Though it has always been important for business leaders to be proficient public speakers, it is now arguably more important than ever, given the ubiquity of social media and the ease of sharing information. What’s more, choosing the right arena in which to speak is equally critical.

In the digital age, conferences and events have become a key platform for delivering a message in a more direct and personal way than a screen can ever achieve. It is perhaps for this reason that such events have grown in popularity in recent years. In the US alone, the market for conferences is predicted to grow 44 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, far surpassing the expected growth of numerous other industries.

“Not all conferences are important, to be honest. It is critical to identify those that are purely a vehicle for the organisers to make a profit by selling tickets and offering sponsorships, while resulting in no direct outcomes or calls to action”, Attias said. “The conferences that matter to business are those that generate productive debate and collaboration for solving pressing business and global issues, and result in deliverables and commitments that will make a real and lasting impact.”

Media organisations seeking new sources of revenue are part of the reason for the rising number of conferences. Attias, however, argues that, in order for such events to be effective, they cannot simply be about making a profit. “They must be developed as a communications and strategic tool for achieving goals that can range from raising the profile and brand of a host nation or city, to addressing challenges that the global economy is facing.”

Providing a space for communication is essentially the core goal of seminars and conventions. They provide a rare and valuable opportunity for people in an industry to meet face to face, discuss recent innovations and new ideas, and strike up collaborations. Those who attend do so with the hope of learning something new, something that can be used for the benefit of their own business. While the internet is at hand as an indispensable research tool, there is nothing quite like personal interaction or attending an inspiring talk. “They also provide a powerful platform for discovering and understanding other cultures, connecting generations, and meeting and building relationships with potential partners, investors and clients”, Attias added.

Obviously, due to the rising number of conventions now taking place across the globe, it has become easy for event organisers, and even speakers themselves, to fall into the trap of repetition and duplication. To do so, however, can have a profoundly detrimental impact on the desired outcomes of an event, with attendees leaving feeling uninspired, bored and having learned nothing new.

“The two most important takeaways from my experience of producing major events like the World Economic Forum are content and inclusivity”, claimed Attias. “The moment your content is a ‘copy and paste’ of other events and you exclude communities which are fundamental for the future of our societies, especially young people, you fail.”

Providing a space for communication is essentially the core goal of seminars and conventions

Aside from the trap of mundanity, the rising popularity of conferences and seminars has seen them rapidly evolve in terms of form, with technology playing a central role in the transition. Tools such as virtual and augmented reality, for example, are adding a new dimension to events and providing further engagement for attendees. New apps are also helping the whole process to run more smoothly, making conferences much easier to navigate. Social media, meanwhile, can ensure debates begin prior to the event itself, and continue long after it has finished.

Amid all these changes, however, the essence of what makes a great conference remains. “Technology will never replace the power of interacting and engaging with people face-to-face”, said Attias. “That is why we are always focused on creating conferences that offer the best of both digital and real worlds. It is essential that people be able to differentiate between conferences which are purely business opportunities versus those that have a real raison d’être, with clear, strong, sincere commitments and outcomes.”

Make it personal
With so many screens everywhere we look – computers at work, televisions at home, tablets and smartphones wherever we go – the power of human interaction has never been as strong as it is today. People nowadays crave intimacy and human contact.

So used are we to being bombarded with information from a plethora of different sources, having it delivered in a way that is personal and direct is a breath a fresh air. It communicates with us at the most basic of levels, and so can motivate and inspire more effectively than any other approach or medium.

As such, public speaking is essential for those wishing to climb to the highest echelons of business. To lead is to inspire, and there is perhaps no more effective way of leading than through words. Mastering the skill of public speaking has become an indispensable skill in business leadership.

It is vital for anyone wishing to make waves, disrupt industries, rouse teams, and convince others of the message they seek to spread. As daunting as it may seem to some, there is no escaping it. Individuals can at least seek comfort in the abundant lessons and pieces of advice that make it so much easier. And, in doing so, they can open up a new world of possibilities for their careers and organisations alike.