How to Be a Better Public Speaker -- and More Persuasive Leader

Last Updated Sep 14, 2010 6:36 PM EDT

In preparation for a few upcoming speaking engagements, I decided it was time to get some individual public-speaking coaching in order to become more effective. I chose a professional actor and director, Michael Allosso, who just so happens to be one of the most effective coaches I've ever used. He argues that the skills professional actors need can be used by executives to lead more effectively because they're not just helpful for speaking to large crowds, but also in small meetings and even one-on-one with employees.

But acting?! My first take on this was that honesty, substance, and authenticity are more important than appearances. But Michael makes a very good point: Your appearance is not always perceived by others the way you intend it to be. As a result, your tone, mannerisms, and physical behavior can prevent your audience from understanding your message -- or worse, make them misinterpret your meaning.

Do you think that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Steve Jobs were born fantastic public speakers? Of course not. They've been trained to know that their audience and the media pay attention to seemingly superficial details: hairdo's, cost of clothing, how they look when they're listening to an opponent in a debate, etc. It happens in courtrooms: Juries make decisions on how remorseful a defendant appears. You can guarantee it's also happening in your company. You are being judged EVERY day, every second, by how well you act the part.

This post is not meant to be an exhaustive list of how to make speeches; there are plenty of books and articles about that. I want to elevate the topic of how you act (i.e. your mannerisms and demeanor) and hope to encourage you to begin thinking more about how you're perceived and how to employ acting to your advantage. In my session, I came away with a Top 12 list of ways I can improve (and I thought lists usually only go up to 10!).

Here are some of the questions that I am now asking myself:
  • When giving constructive criticism, does my recipient always view it as constructive?
  • When interviewing prospective job candidates, are the prospects usually comfortable and do they freely express themselves?
  • When presenting information to persuade, am I only concerned with the substance and logic of my argument? Could my facial expressions and gestures somehow sabotage my argument?
  • What am I doing in personal conversations to encourage others to express their views without the fear of being judged or ridiculed?
  • When others do not understand my view, could it be because of the way I presented it?
And here are a few quick fixes I learned during my coaching session:

Check your posture: Are you reclining with an unintentional dead-pan look on your face? Or instead, leaning in with a kind, receptive demeanor?

Smile: If you appear unemotional, you may be perceived as insensitive and unreceptive to hearing conflicting opinions.

Adjust your tone: If your speech pattern is monotone, it can become uninteresting despite having good content. So vary your pitch, accent key words, change your tempo, and your content will appear more interesting.

Connect with your eyes: Do you look people right in the eyes, even when presenting to hundreds? You must connect for a message to be received and heard.

Next time you watch one of your favorite actors on a talk show, pay attention to how she presents herself and how you feel after watching her. Then compare her to yourself. How do you make others feel? Are you deserving of an Academy Award or a rotten tomato?

Have some speaking tips to share? Leave them below in the comments.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.com, by acaben
  • Jay Steinfeld On Twitter»

    Jay Steinfeld is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window blinds sales. He is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. His company was named Best Place to Work in Houston, won the American Marketing Association's Marketer of the Year, and Steinfeld was named by the Houston Chronicle as Houston's top CEO in the under-150 employee category for the last 2 years.

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