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The Best Piece Of Public Speaking Advice I Ever Got

Today’s digital leaders are chief engines of growth. They are the center of gravity for digitally enabled transformation and experience. And they must move their organizations—and their organizations’ customers—to follow their lead.

Yet one of their most potent assets is often overlooked in executive development: presentation skills. No matter how rigorous the logic or the storyline, they must still rely on compelling delivery in order to effectively communicate, convince, and compel an audience to action.

Because I was always such a believer in the importance of strong presentation skills, I took advantage of every opportunity to build my comfort and capabilities as a speaker. To be honest, I always counted public speaking as one of my stronger suits. But I also believed that it was impossible to get too much coaching and learning in this critical area.

One message I received early on continues to motivate me and, in many ways, haunt me. It came from a consultant named Steve Crandall during a seminar while I was at General Mills. At that point, I have to admit I was feeling pretty good about my skills. So when it was my turn to do my bit, I felt smooth and confident, and delivered my spiel with what I considered to be charisma and charm.

When I was done, Steve cradled his chin thoughtfully, nodding. He suggested the group take a break, but asked me to stick around. I thought I was in for some special praise out of my colleagues’ earshot. After a pause, he looked up at me, clearly choosing his words carefully. “Stop trying to be interesting to the audience,” he said. “Start being interested in the audience.”

Needless to say, that was not what I was expecting. Taken aback, and more than a little disappointed, I absorbed the words and rejoined the group. As I thought more about his advice that day, and as I’ve continued to think about it 25 years later, I’m amazed at how much profound insight he loaded into so few words. As I unpack that thought, a number of powerful lessons emerge, not only as it relates to our own personal careers but to customer engagement, as well:

• Focus on serving, not performing: It’s about them, not you. You’re trying to move, inspire, and convince an audience, not audition for a role. All of your radar and awareness should be directed outward, not inward. Your motivation should have nothing to do with being impressive, amusing, or popular. You should strive instead to deliver meaningful, compelling value to your audience in ways that will change them. Be generous, not winning.

• Have a clear objective: Before you walk on stage or stand up in the room, be clear and explicit as to what you’re trying to achieve for them, not you. What do you want them to believe/feel/do when they leave the room? Why will they be glad they listened to you? It’s all too easy to gloss over these questions as you focus on your PowerPoint and performance techniques.

• Know your audience: Whether it’s a roomful of familiar colleagues or an unknown audience, give real thought to who they are, what’s on their minds, and where they are emotionally in that moment. You only need to be a few degrees off in tone, focus, or awareness in order to miss your listeners. Invest time in advance to gather intel on the underlying questions, tensions, and subtext in the group. If you go on at noon, arrive early to gain context and get seamlessly in sync with the flow.

• Speak to her, not them: You can’t really be meaningfully interested in 20 or 300 people at once; you can be very interested in one individual. Deliver your talk in small parcels to one person at a time. Don’t machine gun your eye contact in random, rapid sweeps across the room. Pause to engage him, then her, demonstrating to each a real interest in their understanding and engagement.

I’ll admit that I still cringe a bit when I remember getting scolded for being so engaged with myself all those years ago. But the “be interested in them” mantra I repeat every time I step on stage, along with the humility that moment brought, has served me well all these years. Ditto for the brands I served. I hope it helps you, too. 

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