Don Hutson is a world class public speaker and past President of the National Speakers Association. His decades of experience made him the perfect person to sit down and discuss the art of public speaking.
Leaders today must be quick on their feet, have a ready answer, and operate at net speed.
Your credibility drops with ums and ahs.
Your leadership brand is sullied by blank stares or unclear answers.
No one is perfect, but it’s important to read an audience. It’s often important to improvise.
I know that I often credit my extemporaneous speaking to my early forensics club in high school and college, skills that I depend on every single day as the CEO of a global organization. It’s not something you’re born with, but something you can learn through careful practice and preparation.
Judith Humphrey, in her new book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment, provides a perfect opportunity for every one of us to up our game and improve our skills. I’m always on a quest to improve my skills in this area, and that’s why I welcomed her book into my self-development arsenal.
I followed up with Judith to talk about her work in this area. Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group Inc., a top tier communications firm. For over thirty years, she has been a communications coach and speaker. She’s also a columnist for Fast Company.
The Importance of Extemporaneous Speaking
Why is extemporaneous speaking so important?
Off-the-cuff remarks have become the new normal for business leaders. Organizations have flattened, and knowledge and decision-making are decentralized. Not long ago, messages were delivered from “on high.” Only those in the C-suite seemed to be empowered. Now leaders at all levels are speaking out and communicating in a more open, authentic, and informal manner.
Such everyday communications involve leading in the moment and speaking spontaneously. This is leadership in the organization of the twenty-first century. It takes place in corridors, elevators, meetings, interviews, networking events, and chats. Many small stages have replaced the big stage, and impromptu communication has become far more important than scripted speaking.
“Good impromptu speaking is a matter of words, scripts, and presence.” -Judith Humphrey
Most people think impromptu speaking would be an innate skill; you have it or you don’t. But you point out that it’s a skill you develop. Would you share some historical examples of people who practiced their extemporaneous speaking skills?
History provides many examples of individuals who faced the challenge of impromptu speaking—and discovered how to measure up to that challenge.
Abraham Lincoln told young lawyers that “extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated.” He showed his own gifts as a spontaneous speaker in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Mark Twain talked about needing several hours to prepare an impromptu speech. Winston Churchill also believed in the value of preparing impromptu remarks. In one oft-quoted example, he paused before exiting his car as his driver opened the door for him, saying, “Please wait a moment, I’m still going over my ‘extemporaneous remarks.” Lou Gehrig prepared for his “Farewell to Baseball” speech, but did not read a text–he spoke spontaneously and without notes. And one of the greatest examples of prepared spontaneity is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he improvised the centerpiece of the speech.
Even though we think of impromptu speaking as winging it, we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t prepare. In fact, the word “Impromptu” derives from the Latin in promptu meaning “in readiness.”
“Spontaneous, nonhierarchical dialogue is the new narrative for business leaders.” -Judith Humphrey
The impromptu mindset begins with intention – the willingness to see every situation as a potential leadership opportunity, whether it is an encounter in the corridor, an exchange in the elevator, or a comment interjected in a meeting dialogue. This intentionality is paramount for any leader who wants to make the most of impromptu opportunities.
Beyond that, the impromptu mindset includes the willingness to listen—to be engaged in what others say. Listening is critical if one is to avoid the one-way monologue that defined traditional executive communications.
The impromptu mindset also involves authenticity. Never before have leaders had to be so open with their audiences. Authentic leaders are comfortable in sharing their ideas, values, beliefs, vulnerabilities, and stories.
Finally, the impromptu mindset includes respectfulness and the ability to focus: everyday audiences need to be respected because each encounter involves—and can strengthen—a relationship. And in speaking off-the-cuff it’s critical to focus, because your impromptu audiences expect you to be there, truly present, for them.
“The most successful executives and managers see every encounter as a potential leadership moment.” -Judith Humphrey
Over ten years ago, I found myself in a class for leaders and managers. After building rapport and working to create a safe environment of trust, the class facilitator decided to have us go around the room and share our insecurities and fears. The coach was specifically homing in on our weaknesses and asking for us to be transparent with others in the room.
As we worked around a small circle, one woman was visibly nervous. When it was her turn, it was as if someone flipped a switch and turned her red. She stumbled over her words as she explained how fearful she was to speak in public. Even in a safe situation with supportive friends, she still was nervous to share. We learned that she even had nightmares where she was in front of a room, perched behind a podium, and she misplaced her notes and looked out at a sea of unforgiving faces. Another attendee encouraged her and told her that she was better off avoiding these events so she didn’t trigger her fears.
The fear of public speaking grips many people who avoid it at all costs.
I want to share why this “avoidance thinking” is toxic to aspiring leaders.
“Fear the fear of public speaking and do it anyway.” –Arvee Robinson
Recently, I spoke to my local chapter of Toastmasters and shared 7 reasons why learning to speak in public is vitally important.
1. Overcome your fear.
There’s enormous power in mastering and overcoming a fear, whatever it is. I can recall the smile on a new rock climber’s face when he conquered his fear. “I have never felt so alive and free,” he said to me soon after completing his climb. That same feeling happens if you overcome a fear of public speaking, and – at least to me – it’s a whole lot easier than climbing a mountain.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, and to sit down and listen.” –Winston Churchill
When you not only are able to overcome your fear but also become proficient at it, then your confidence soars. Confidence is often more compelling than competence. I don’t know what happened to the nervous woman after the class ended, but during the few days of our classes, she saw remarkable improvement. You could feel her confidence building.
“Competence without confidence just doesn’t cut it.” –Derek Lewis
Great public speakers attract opportunities. Why? Speaking makes you visible. You’re in front of the room, so that’s rather obvious. But the fact is that your credibility is enhanced. You become an expert.
“It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach, just get them to fly in formation.” –Rob Gilbert
Leadership is all about influence, about persuasion, about taking people from one point and moving them to another. Speaking is part of that process of persuasion and often the most powerful part. Anything that helps increase your influence is generally a good move.
“All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
What are some of the signs of an ineffective leader’s communications?
Ineffective leaders tend to place great trust in their own expertise and control. Their thinking seems to follow the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So most of their communication is one-directional—telling. By contrast, more effective leaders like to get input from several trusted sources. They listen with an open mind and weigh facts and ideas before rushing to accept or reject these ideas as valid. The majority of their communication is collaborative.
Ineffective leaders often communicate with vague abstractions so as to avoid offense and blame on sensitive issues. More effective leaders, however, understand when an ounce of specificity is worth a ton of abstraction.
“Effective leaders understand an ounce of specificity is worth a ton of abstraction.” -Dianna Booher
While ineffective leaders may communicate directly and frequently (good habits), they often focus on controlling processes and people. Consequently, these leaders often come across as manipulative and uncaring. In addition to direct and frequent communication, more effective leaders are tactful, compassionate, and passionate when it comes to people.
Although ineffective leaders would probably never see their communication lacking in this way, they focus on detail—the “how” of a job, doing things right. More effective leaders communicate the bigger picture—the “why” of a job. And communicating that “why” to team members tends to inspire them to do their best work on the right things.
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” -Cool Hand Luke
It could very well be because you didn’t know your natural style. By not knowing your unique strengths, you missed the opportunity to tap into what works for you.
If you want to be a better speaker or just improve your comfort level in front of groups, this post is for you.
Scott Schwertly is the founder and CEO of Ethos3, a presentation design and training company with clients ranging from Guy Kawasaki to Fortune 500 Companies. In fact, I personally utilized Ethos3 for two major keynote presentations. I can speak from personal experience that Scott and his team are exceptionally talented at creating memorable presentations.
Why is self-awareness so important for presenters?
Self-awareness is absolutely critical for presenters because it means they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses when giving a presentation. It also showcases that they are clearly aware of which audiences will adore them or challenge them. Without this knowledge, a presenter can only guess and assume, which is a dangerous situation.
“Self-awareness is probably the most important thing toward being a champion.” –Billie Jean King
There are sixteen different types of personas. Would you share just a few of them? (would love to include the graphic of the 16 if it is available).
That’s correct. There is a total of 16 presentation personas. All are different and each consists of its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. A few of my personal favorites are the Liberator, Activator, and Scholar. The Liberator is someone who is incredibly well rounded where they score high in all 4 quadrants of the Badge assessment. The Activator is your classic sales personality where this type of presenter excels in front of a room, and people love them. The Scholar is the exact opposite of the Activator where they are a verified expert and have a durable message but they may not be great in front of a room.
Where can I take the assessment?
Anyone can discover their presentation persona right now. They can do so by visiting Ethos3’s Badge page. The assessment takes about 10-12 minutes to complete. It’s super-fast. Also, readers should pick up a copy of What’s Your Presentation Persona? to understand their results/profile.
Stop One Thing
What’s a presentation stop-doing list?
Most people today are constantly trying to add items to their plate. They want to read more books, take more courses, exercise more frequently…the list goes on and on. Most presenters are no different. They are trying to do too much, and it simply is not sustainable. Instead, I would suggest instead of adding 7-8 proactive items, why not just stop one. Let’s say a presenter wants to read one presentation book a week, subscribe to 30 presentation blogs, practice 10 times before every presentation, and attend a presentation training course every quarter. That’s admirable, but it may not be doable. Why not just stop being lazy with your presentations or stop short-cutting your content development process? Stopping one thing is much easier than adding ten items.
Speaking Tip: stop one thing to improve your presentations.