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Public Speaking As an Important Leadership Skill,
and Three Improvement Tips

June 2013

Someone recently described public speaking as one of "the most superficial aspects of leadership." I beg to differ.
Public speaking is one of the most important leadership skills. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you can't get people to listen to those ideas, and more important act upon them, you're not going to be as successful as you could be.

Most people think of "public speaking" as getting up in front of a crowd and giving a speech. Yes, giving a good speech is important, but for me it's only one aspect of public speaking.

For me the "public" part of public speaking doesn't mean only when you're in front of a large crowd.

It means ANY time you're talking to people. You should practice good public speaking skills when you're giving that speech, but also when you're addressing your team at a meeting, or when you're having a performance review discussion with a direct report.

I recently told a coaching client that his job as the owner of the company is to connect with his employees. In general, leadership is about connecting with people, which is why public speaking is important.

So we, as leaders, need to develop speech giving skills, and then use those skills in other situations, such as our day-to-day communications with others, because for most of us, we talk more to smaller groups than to the big crowds.

Again, any time you're talking, you should practice good public speaking skills. Good communicators realize this, and they take what they learn in studying the art of giving a formal speech in front of a crowd, and apply those lessons to the rest of their conversations.

Here are some examples of speech giving tips that apply to times you're having important discussions, in situations other than speaking before a large crowd.

Writing the Speech: I believe that short speeches, those ten to fifteen minutes long, should be written out word for word. (And if your speech is longer, you need to maximize the power of your opening and close, by writing them out word for word.)

Writing helps clarify your thought, and often the point you start out with in your head changes as you start to write it out. That happens with speeches, and articles like this.

So, as a leader, whenever you're going to have an important discussion, you should write out in narrative form what you want to say.

Whether it's a performance review with a direct report who's a poor performer, discussing a major problem with a key customer, asking your boss for a raise—if it's really important, you should write out at least a paragraph or two about what it is you want to say.

Then edit, edit, edit, refining it until it says exactly what you want to communicate.

Vocal Variety: There's nothing worse than listening to speech delivered in a boring, snooze-inducing monotone. That's why you need to vary the pitch, the cadence, the volume of your voice. It applies to formal speeches, and to important conversations with everyone.

Storytelling: It's an important part of formal speeches, because everyone relates to stories. It's how we connect with other people. That's why I include them in formal speeches.

But because they help you connect with people, you should also use brief stories to illustrate your points in conversations and remarks you make in less formal situations: Team meetings, presentations to the board, or sales presentations, and yes, in one-on-one conversations.

Those three tips ought to get you started. The best way I know to improve your public speaking skills is to join Toastmasters. Most of the focus for new members is on giving ten 5-7 minute speeches, with each speech emphasizing a different aspect of public speaking.

But remember, those skills also apply to the day-to-day conversations you have with others, especially those important conversations or meetings where you have little room for error, and you want your message to resonate and motivate.

What are you doing to improve you're public speaking skills, in formal speech giving situations, and in less formal settings? What could you achieve if you improved these skills?