HBJ Article: Becoming a Good Public Speaker Takes Practice

September 2006

by Matthew Gilliam

Dealing with large sums of money and making personnel decisions come naturally to most business people. But despite their ability to tackle such huge responsibilities, many business people aren't able to speak effectively in public.

Indeed, making an effort to hone public speaking skills can often make or break a career, no matter the industry.

"In the professional world, if you can't speak and communicate in front of groups, you hit a glass ceiling," says Sandra Zimmer, owner of the Self- Expression Center.

Zimmer says this ceiling often hampers advancement in the business world.

Ray Thompson, managing director at Wixted Pope Nora Thompson & Associates LP, says the importance of public speaking skills is increasing because an executive's "communication skills are on display" in many different business environments.

"If you are the CEO of a large successful publicly held company, you are expected to be a gifted communicator," he says.

And the ability to speak in public is not just important for C-level executives, but for employees throughout a company, whether it's making a speech in front of thousands of people or making a presentation to a group of subordinates.

And while many executives do not inherently possess a talent for public speaking, Zimmer says, "it is definitely an ability which can be developed and honed."

V.J. Singal, owner of The Articulate Professional, says there are two primary models for business speakers: They either resemble an Egyptian Sphinx, speaking monotonously and not giving relative emphasis, or they resemble an uncaged tiger, causing information overload with their audience.

He says the main challenge in public speaking is helping the speaker appreciate the audience's perspective of the message.

Understanding where the audience is coming from -- and what they are interested in -- is essential in communicating effectively, Singal says.

Zimmer says just the idea of public speaking strikes fear. This fear creates a lot of tension which "(business people) do not know how to handle." Zimmer's goal is to "transform the tension of being in front of people so they can share their expertise."

Despite these problems, Singal finds that many executives do not receive necessary training. This lack of training is a result of them becoming "overwhelmed with the minutiae of everyday life because of the technology revolution" Thus it has become "extremely difficult for people to make time for communication training."

Thompson has discovered that many executives realize their lack of public speaking skills. However, some companies have a formal executive development program in which perfecting the art of public speaking is mandatory.

Zimmer supports Thompson's findings. Some companies have hired her to coach their employees while other independent individuals "know it is a skill to be developed" and come to her for training.

Many executives' public speaking problems remain undiagnosed because "if (an executive's) public speaking is particularly bad, (lower level employees) think they shouldn't tell anybody because it will really be viewed as an unfriendly gesture," says Singal.

Singal adds, "the reason many people don't contact a public speaking trainer or a coach is there is a widespread misconception that public speaking training is all auditory."

Singal uses former Texaco CEO Peter Bijur to support the importance of both nonverbal and verbal communication. Bijur used the same public speaking approach in a "one on one" situation while not talking down to people.

Once an executive identifies the need for public speaking training, certain steps must be taken in choosing a coach.

"Good chemistry with senior executives is important," says Thompson, and "the chemistry between the participant and the coach has a direct impact on the quality of the experience."

If this chemistry exists, "that coach will be able to inhabit the mind of the client" claims Singal. The chemistry between a coach and client also creates a more agreeable training experience.

Zimmer considers the most important aspect in a choosing a public speaking coach to be the ability to "see your potential and draw that out" by providing positive feedback.

Another important ingredient is to find a coach "skilled and competent in both nonverbal and verbal communication," relates Singal.

Because of the ever changing and evolving nature of the business world, the need for improvement in public speaking has become more imperative. The resources to improve this need are available; the men and women of the business world need simply to take the initiative.

Matthew Gilliam is a Houston-based freelance writer.




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