Are You a Professional Speaker?
For fifteen years, I taught graphic and web design at a university. Because I had a master’s degree and the requisite portfolio, I was deemed qualified to teach. I was shown my classroom, provided with course objectives, and directed to teach four-hour (!) classes.
Never once was I asked about my presentation skills. I was the one who had to figure out how to be more exciting than social media for much longer than any student’s attention span.
But my colleagues and I never thought of ourselves as professional speakers. We did what most employees do: In the break room, we speculated on how much better the school would be if we were running it.
I wish I’d known then what I know now.
Any experienced professor will tell you (as long as the dean isn’t listening) that education is at least 80% entertainment. But how many classes taught by uninspiring “subject matter experts” did you have to sit through between kindergarten and college graduation? Educators would be much more effective if someone told them early—before they landed in a classroom—“You’re a professional speaker! Learn the art of engagement!”
And on that note, if you’re teaching something relevant to the “real world” in your classroom (which you should be), you can teach it outside the classroom for a significantly higher fee. Who knew?
“But,” I hear you say, “I’m a math teacher, not Tony Robbins!”
Event speakers represent only one slice of the speaking pie. Corporate trainers do what any other teacher does—except they bypass the politics and the middleman. Meeting facilitators help groups with productivity. Some presenters speak so they can network with a room full of people at once. Many speak for free so they can funnel qualified clients into their coaching and training programs.
So many of us are mislabeled speakers who present in courtrooms, conference rooms, or boardrooms without ever considering that our ability to engage an audience is just as important as our expertise. If we can’t communicate our ideas and experience to others, of what use are we? Whatever you do for your dollars, your livelihood depends on your ability to be more interesting and engaging than a screen full of colorful apps.
Are you a lackluster leader? You may understand all the numbers, have your finger on the pulse of your industry, and know the org chart like you know your own neighborhood, but can you make those numbers meaningful to stockholders and stakeholders? Can you communicate your company’s unique value in ways that your clients, colleagues, and competitors understand? Can you lead, motivate, and direct your team to win over and over again? If your company is being acquired or merging with another organization, what you say can inspire confidence … or trigger an exodus of stockholders and talent. A CEO who delivers a boring keynote address can degrade the value of a multi-billion-dollar brand in minutes, while a dynamic leader can rally customers and colleagues to stay on-board during tough times. One speech can be worth tens of millions of dollars—in profit or loss. Those are high stakes!
People buy with emotion and justify their purchases with logic. Is your speech a data-dump or a relationship-builder? Investors buy leadership, not shares.
Are you pitching your startup to venture capitalists? Will you show them a clever spreadsheet or talk about the real value of your enterprise—to the people it serves? Will you bore your funding sources into a coma one-by-one or will you build excitement around your enterprise and make investors feel good about you?
How productive are your team meetings? Are your managers rambling on about prices, processes, ingredients, and data in yet another death-by-PowerPoint session, or are they building positive culture, defining meaningful outcomes, and keeping your talent awake and on-board?
Companies like IBM and Verizon have chief storytelling officers on payroll. Thousands of companies like Office Depot and Carnival Cruise Lines have internal Toastmasters clubs where employees are encouraged to polish their presentation skills. Successful politicians and executives hire speechwriters and presentation coaches.
The good news is that presentation skills can be learned, even by introverts and the pathologically shy. The speaking business is also learnable. Despite the hype, those willing to learn, work, study, and cultivate the right mentors and resources can make a living with a microphone and a message.
Are you a speaker? Unless you’re in solitary confinement or work the night shift in a morgue, the answer is probably, “Yes.” Public speaking is the single most important leadership skill you’ll ever learn.