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The Inside Scoop on Becoming a Good Public Speaker

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • What it takes to be a good public speaker
  • Habits and traits event coordinators look for in public speakers
  • Three tips for becoming a frequent public speaker

For many product or brand managers, agency C-suite executives, and small business owners, public speaking is a notch on the "Advancing the Brand" belt of objectives. And for good reason.

Whether used to promote a company report or in-house expertise, or simply to engender brand awareness, public speaking is a powerful—and often economical and organic—way to get your message to key influencers and decision-makers.

So, why do so many speakers sabotage their own results or only weakly pursue their objectives? Perhaps because of a lack of understanding of the organizational and marketing side of public speaking? If so, let's work on that.

Public Speaking's Cost of Entry

Many active and emerging speakers have a grasp of the "gimme" requirements for being featured in a webinar or group panel. Criteria such as the following are the cost of entry:

  • Possess expertise in and demonstrated knowledge of a category or subject.
  • Have a pleasant speaking voice well suited for groups and large venues.
  • Consistently use good grammar and diction (orally and in written materials).
  • Study human behavior; know how to read audience silence and reactions.
  • Possess quick-thinking skills and the ability to shift or skip ahead in content if necessary.
  • Escort your audience along the path to understanding via your storytelling abilities.

Bonus: Entertain the audience (be clever, with a light touch of humor), and effectively apply the art of self-deprecation as an ice-breaker tactic.

Three Habits of Successful Speakers

Of course, great public speaking involves taking other, less glamorous (or maybe less obvious) and often neglected, steps.

Those who work in event management or as program coordinators look for folks who have certain habits as well. (And those event coordinators talk to one another. Referrals and recommendations carry weight!). They want speakers who...

  • Read all communications thoroughly. If the handler makes two statements and asks four questions in an email, good speakers reply accordingly and promptly. Even if you don't immediately understand how the questions are relevant, they are probably important to the backend workings.
  • Adhere to format and style requirements. Though you may already have 80% of your deck (in terms of content) scattered across four PowerPoint presentations, be mindful when pulling the slides together to form a new file. With an objective eye, evaluate how well the slides "hang" together. If you were asked to use a specific branded template, for example, be sure to stay within any live-area constraints. (Don't let your full-slide graphics overlay the borders of the design.)
  • Act as their own quality-assurance department. Remember, only a small subset of professionals know what you know. That's one of the reasons you should edit your slides carefully before handing in your deck. The event coordinator may not catch a misspelling, detect an outdated statistic, or judge whether an example or reference is clear for the expected audience.

How to Get Your Speaking Train Rolling

So, now you know what it takes to have presenter potential—innate qualities, learned behavior, and basic habits.

The following three tips may help you gain valuable momentum to move from occasional-speaker status to frequent-speaker status, and nail some of your own objectives.

1. Be easily found

Include a speaking page on your website and specific speaking-related language on your LinkedIn profile

Surprisingly, many people who are receptive to the idea of speaking don't convey that in the two primary venues where events people prowl for talent.

Make it easy for them; include your email, phone number, and Skype contact information on your speaking page. Link to samples of handouts from past presentations, embed decks from SlideShare, post video snippets, and sample some testimonials from attendees. If possible, list the events (and dates) you keynoted or co-presented.

2. Be forward

Once you've spoken (and you've gotten positive feedback), be frank with the event coordinator.

Explain that you're anxious to strengthen your pedigree, and ask whether she'd be comfortable endorsing you on LinkedIn or SpeakerMix. Request audience feedback so you have an opportunity to keep refining as you iterate.

3. Be willing to share

Assuming your speaking agreement allows, share your deck with your blog readers, fold it into your email marketing program, link to it on SlideShare from your LinkedIn profile, post the link to your brand Facebook page, and tweet your blog post with the embedded deck.

Check with your local chapters of professional and trade groups to see whether any opportunities are available to share your work with members of those groups. Sometimes those groups are hungry for content, and you may just satisfy their need.

Also, if you have a reciprocal arrangement with a few industry blog owners, consider ways to repurpose your deck and blog post to their organic audiences by diving deeper, changing the approach, or leading with a tangential element from the deck. The intent is to keep the content fresh (and not duplicated) for all readers while maximizing the built-in communities owned by your peers.

* * *

Good public speakers have more than a deep knowledge base and an awesome radio voice. They understand the operational and logistical needs of the host organization, and they work collaboratively to produce the event. And those speakers have the savvy to market themselves so that opportunity comes knocking.

Have you grown from being a newbie to being a savvy speaker? What lessons did you learn along the way, and what suggestions might you have for others?


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Heather Rast is brand marshal, content strategist, and community builder at Insights & Ingenuity, a digital marketing company; she is also senior program manager for MarketingProfs University.

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  • by Bill Baker (@StorytellerBill) Thu Mar 22, 2012 via web

    Insight article Heather. Thank you for that. Your counsel to readers to not overlook the logistical aspects of public speaking is really sound. No matter how good a public speaker you are, people won't ask you back if you're a pain in the butt to manage.

    On the flip side, I always appreciate conference managers that put in a little extra effort to take good care of their speakers. I'm not talking about J-Lo-type treatment; just simple things like honoring their A/V requests to the letter, being very clear on where they need to be by when, not throwing any last minute surprises at them, etc. As seasoned as one might be in public speaking, there is always nerves involved. The more conference managers can enable us to focus on our upcoming performance and less on operational issues like whether the A/V works, the better that performance will be, and the more conference attendees will get out of it.

    One last additional suggestion as it relates to marketing yourself. Think about developing a downloadable Speaker Kit that outlines your most popular speaking topics, contains endorsements from past speaking gigs and, ideally, has links to videos of you speaking.

  • by Kelvin Findlay Thu Mar 22, 2012 via web

    Thank you for the tips! I was thinking about this very topic last night. I plan on embarking down the speaker/blogger/consultant path as I gain more experience.

    I, for one, would love any input by the seasoned pros!

  • by Jeanette Gardiner Thu Mar 22, 2012 via web

    I appreciated the tips on repurposing speech and presentation content, and ideas for working with the event coordinators.

    I realize this article is focused on the organizational and marketing side of public speaking, but I have to put a plug in for Toastmasters to help any speaker become more polished in their delivery and to learn to use visual aids more effectively. I'm sure we've all been through at least one presentation where the speaker read their text heavy PowerPoint slides to the audience rather than engaging with them.

    I like Bill's idea of the Speaker Kit. Using video not only helps with marketing, it can help the speaker see what areas worked well, and what areas need improvement.

  • by Dave Lutz Thu Mar 22, 2012 via web

    Heather, thanks for putting together this thoughtful post!

    One area where I disagree a bit is conforming to the requested template. Having strong visuals trumps using a branded template. Organizations that request that professional speakers use a template aren't properly focused on the value to the participant. Bottom line, if the participants get a lot out of your presentation and stories, it will make the contracting organization look good. The best advice on this is to use their template for the first and last slide and stay visually strong in between.

  • by Heather Rast Thu Mar 22, 2012 via web

    @Bill - Glad you enjoyed the article. And great of you to highlight a few issues concerning speakers. Indeed, it's ideal when both parties are vested and committed, and comfortable that the other has covered their own respective bases. Love the speaker kit suggestion - surely, if you want to be active on the speaker circuit, then make it easy for conference and events coordinators to discover and learn more about you. Thanks for your comments!

    @Kelvin - Good to hear the article was timely and useful to you. Hopefully it can help set you on the right path more quickly!

    @Jeanette - Hey, plug away! I have no personal experience with Toastmasters, but it's my understanding it's widely regarded by many others. I certainly applaud those who seek improvement through self-discovery - it's good for their final output, and for the audience members experiencing the presentation.

    @Dave - Thanks for stopping by and offering us another perspective to chew on. I wonder if you're steadfast on your view in situations where a presenter of a session is one of several comprising an entire track or course? For example, in a track addressing email marketing comprised of 15 individual sessions presented by 15 separate speakers, do you think there's benefit in the continuity a basic template framework would provide? I didn't mean to suggest a wholly prescribed deck style, but rather a consistent framework for participants to work within. At the conclusion, it could be one way to ensure some audience expectations were met, based on the consistent way content was presented. Again, thanks for adding your POV!

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