This has been something of a summer of speeches. In the United States, the world has watched speeches that ranged from the inspirational to the allegedly plagiarised. In Japan, emperor Akihito recently surprised many by delivering only his second-ever televised message to his country, while a basketball-playing nine-year old from Jamaica became a YouTube hit for a passionately delivered motivational speech. Speechmakers have been everywhere.
In the corporate world, there are many leaders who are particularly well known because of their striking oratory skills – indeed, it may well be one of their defining skills and abilities in leadership. These are the public speaking superstars – the people who appear infinitely capable of drawing a crowd, of rallying dispirited employees, or of motivating a group of people to new heights of performance. They will stand at a podium or behind a microphone and carry their audience along with them, no matter the topic or the message they are delivering.
People, fairly obviously, gravitate towards such communicators. They respond more readily to the thrust of what they are trying to say and they actively listen to the words coming out of their mouth. A great public speaker will be able to convince employees of even the most difficult proposition – say a strategic redirection or a painful but necessary change in personnel. They will be able to explain a course of action clearly, compellingly and with evident consideration for the interests of their audience.
In terms of content, they may be saying very little that a less gifted speaker might also say (in fact, they may even be saying rather less), but they will deliver it in a way that resonates far more with the people they lead.
This is at the nub of public speaking: the perceived value or quality of what you say will always be important, but how you say it can be at least as critical. This runs counter to the “substance-over-style” of more authentic styles of leadership that many people now aspire towards. While in day-to-day interactions you should be genuine, and in decision-making be considered and strategic, with public speaking a person needs to think much more about the surface impression they are making. It is far more about appearances than outcomes.
It can also be argued that public speaking effectively subverts the ordinary relationship between the leader and their followers. A rally-rousing delivery can be viewed as much as a leader’s considerable struggle to win the acceptance and approval of the crowd, as it can of a leader providing direction to reports.
This, arguably, is why public speaking can be so genuinely feared by so many professionals at all levels of an organisation. The act requires a person to place themselves at the mercy of other peoples’ judgment and reveal more of their personality and opinions than many are comfortable with. When all eyes in a room are on you, it can feel very difficult not to wither under the attention, with the message getting lost among the mumbles.
The good news, however, is that a deep-set fear of public speaking doesn’t need to stifle the ambitions of would-be organisational leaders. It is questionable whether anyone is really born with a fully-developed sense of what is needed to deliver a great speech, and even those who seem most naturally inclined towards the public eye still need to work on it. For the rest of us, the simple fact is that exposure to delivering presentations is the greatest way to fight the fear and gain the experience to win over an audience.
Of course, “practise makes perfect” is hardly going to shock many speaking-averse professionals into action. Instead, think of it like this – leadership development efforts will often practise other aspects of leadership – delegation, decision-making, strategic thinking – while leaving public speaking as a skill that is called upon only when it is needed “for real” with a high-profile presentation or speech. This is a crazy proposition – Olympians, for example, don’t leave practise to the day of the big race. Instead, look for any opportunity to fine-tune speaking skills – whether through a brief introduction to a regular meeting or impromptu storytelling over a business lunch. Everything can help feed in to your understanding of what it takes to hold an audience.
In the end, substance is still important. But clinging on to that belief while fearfully ignoring your public speaking skills is likely to lead to your message being lost.
Ahmad Badr is chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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