April 11, 2018

Five Public Speaking Tips Learned from Great Leaders I've Interviewed

Brian Banmiller

Brian Banmiller
Executive Producer & Editor /Banmiller on Business , CBS News Radio

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There is an age-old joke about a tourist asking a New York City cab driver how to get to Carnegie Hall. His answer? “Practice!” Funny and yet so true for “public speaking". The fact is most of the world’s great orators spend hours rehearsing every line so that when delivered it seems spontaneous. I’ve seen that up close as a journalist interviewing hundreds of business leaders, politicians and celebrities over four decades, often right before or after their speeches.

Along the way I’ve learned some valuable “tricks of the trade". They may seem simple, but the art of effective public speaking is indeed based on “simplicity” that gives you the confidence to impress any audience. It certainly worked for me over the past four decades, giving hundreds of speeches worldwide. So here goes.

Tip #1: Do not worry about being nervous.

No truly honest public speaker will deny feeling at least a bit nervous before taking the stage. And no wonder. When periodic public polls ask the question, “What activity do you fear the most?”, public speaking comes out number one, ahead of fear of heights, going to the dentist, snakes and flying. Really. So how do you compensate? Be prepared. You know your material better than your audience. They are there to learn, not criticize. So take a deep breath, and have the confidence you are delivering value.

Tip #2: Be rested and ready.

I cannot tell you how many times audiences come up to me and ask how I make it look so easy. The answer is because I actually feel relaxed. This may sound trite but a good nights sleep after a healthy meal, no alcohol, and maybe some exercise works wonders. Try engaging an audience on jet lag or a hangover. I’ve done it and can tell you unless you possess superhuman genes, you will deliver a sub-par performance.

A true side story here. A very well-known professional public speaker I know was feeling ill from the flu, but did not wish to disappoint his audience of some one thousand people gathered for his motivational speech. As we all do, he wore a wireless microphone so he could roam the stage. Feeling suddenly ill, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, he forgot to turn off the wireless.

He returned to a stunned audience sitting in utter silence. As a trouper, he carried on, not sure why his once captive audience had turned so cold. Only after his awkward performance did his protective wife tell him the entire audience heard every awful and retching sound of his bathroom agony. The lesson here. If you are sick, cancel. If not, turn off your microphone.

Tip #3: Be controversial.

We have a saying in the news business that a story is only worth telling if there are at least two opposing views. (Four if both are economists.) And presenting opposing views can make great theatre. Let me give you a vivid example.

Years ago I was covering a major business convention in San Francisco. On the bill, a debate between two celebrity pundits, conservative commentator William F. Buckley and liberal Canadian born economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Sparks flew during their hour-long debate. Neither side would give an inch, and seemed to have a visceral hatred of each other. It made for some great drama.

As they left the stage I grabbed each one for a quick CBS Radio interview. They were gracious, but were still set in their opposing views on everything in politics and the economy. Then the stunner. I asked Buckley how he could handle being on stage with his enemy. He laughed, as only Buckley could, and said they were actually great friends. In fact, they were sharing First Class seats back to New York, and were playing tennis together in the Hamptons the next day.

Tip #4: Tell a story.

The next time you address a noisy luncheon audience and hear the loud sounds of clinking silverware and glasses, try this. Depart from your scripted remarks (or pretend to), and ad lib, saying “This reminds me of …” And make it real. I watched a well-known professional public speaker start every performance by lighting a candle on the podium, pausing, then quietly saying, “I am an alcoholic". The audience was stunned. This was not an AA meeting. They were not forewarned, but were riveted because they wanted to hear his real story.

Tip #5: Get professional help.

My good friend and golf buddy John Chen is CEO and Executive Chairman of Blackberry, once the leader in cell phones until a guy named Steve Jobs crushed the competition with the iPhone. John is now turning Blackberry around by focusing on his security software. During an interview I did for “Banmiller on Business” on CBS News Radio, John shared his own personal experience with getting professional help for “public speaking".

Born in Hong Kong, John came to the U.S. at 17, attended Brown and CalTech, getting a Masters in electrical engineering. His first job was design engineering at Unisys in LA, where he watched other non-Asian engineers getting promoted while he did not. Disturbed by this, John asked his boss why, only to be told his presentation skills were bad in a job that required a lot of pitches. John decided he needed professional help if he had any chance at promotion.

So Chen hired a husband and wife team (she on-air talent and he a producer) who taped his pitch. He found his initial performance “alarming and embarrassing". So he hired the team for six lessons costing $2,000, an entire month’s salary he could hardly afford. But with their coaching help he turned his career around, getting the first of many promotions. The company was so impressed, it reimbursed John the entire cost for those lessons, proving that getting professional help does work.

I smile every time I see John Chen interviewed on CNBC. He took the risk and was handsomely rewarded. So can you.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my AdvisoryCloud profile.

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