Most Feared of all Leadership Skills: Public Speaking

July 25, 2013

For better or for worse, leaders and their leadership skills are too often evaluated by how well they perform when they’re in front of a crowd.

It’s why far too many brilliant and valuable leaders shy away from the title – despite adding tremendous value to the teams of which they are a part, and in every interaction in which they engage, they simply don’t excel at public speaking or presentations.

Life Threatening Leadership Skills

Public speaking is in fact one of the great fears in our society.

And you know what?  That makes total sense!  The fact is that we are all here because our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents (and so on back into time) were smart enough to stay out of dangerous situations, and passed those genes on down to us. 

It’s why most of us are afraid of heights, and sharks, and high-speeds—they’re dangerous!

The fact is most of us are the offspring of people who had a genetic aversion to things that could kill them, it is how they hung around long enough to have us!

What’s so life-threatening about public speaking?  Well, not much in its current form, but our social world has changed much faster than our brain’s physiology has, so try to imagine what our lizard brain sees when we step in front of an audience to present: us, standing alone, with a lot of pairs of eyes on us.

While that’s not all that physically dangerous in the 21st century, throughout most of human evolution, that usually meant we were soon to be lunch.

So if you’re uncomfortable with public speaking or presenting, don’t beat yourself up about it.  The fact is it’s not a character flaw, but rather the result of thousands of years of evolutionary wariness on the part of your brain.

That being said, improving your presentation and public speaking skills will go a long way in helping you make a positive impression and help make your leadership goals come true. 

As such, here are a few tips I’ve picked up through doing over 500 presentations over the past decade.

Public Speaking and Presentation Tips

1. Create a Practice Presentation on Something You Care About

When was the last time you chose to speak in front of a group?

The fact is most of the presentations in our lives are assigned to us, and we only practice presenting as we draw nearer to one of those assigned presentations.  I believe one of the things that keeps people from becoming better public speakers is that they rarely take the opportunity to practice.

The primary reason being is that for most people the opportunity to present comes along rather rarely.  Unfortunately, those rare opportunities are also relatively prescriptive on what you will be presenting about.

So not only are you only presenting, say, once a month or once a quarter, you don’t get to choose the topic about which you will be speaking.

This situation isn’t conducive to significant improvement.  Not long ago I decided that I wanted to learn how to drive a standard transmission car, so two or three times a month I’d visit a friend and we’d go out and practice.

I’d improve a little over each session, but when I’d return a couple of weeks later, I had generally regressed most of the way back to novice.

It wasn’t until my friend suggested we swap cars for two weeks, and I had no choice but to practice each day (much to the chagrin of everyone waiting to turn left behind me at traffic lights) that I truly managed to become proficient.

In addition, it’s never fun to do things we don’t find interesting or enjoyable.  So the challenge becomes making presenting into something that you can practice consistently, and that you will find interesting and even enjoyable.

So whether you’re a novice speaker or a seasoned pro, I offer this suggestion: create your own presentation, about something that you truly care about or find interesting. 

Then schedule a dinner-party or backyard BBQ where you will have to present it.  There are two different ways I suggest approaching this:

  • Create your own 18-minute “TED Talk”. has become wildly popular, and is often seen as the “holy grail” of speaking engagements.  Imagine that the TED conference called you tomorrow and told you that you had a spot at the next conference.  You could speak about whatever you were most passionate about.  Create that presentation and work on refining it each day.
  • Create an 18-minute presentation on your “Edge of the Bed Advice”.  The full story behind the Edge of the Bed Advice concept in a nutshell it is this: imagine that your son or daughter was leaving home tomorrow, and you went and sat down on the edge of their bed the night before, only to have them ask, “what is the best life advice you can give me?  What are the key things you’ve discovered that lead to happiness?”  What would you answer?  Create a presentation about the things you have discovered that make you wise.  For some people, imagining a presentation they’d give to their 18-year-old selves is an approach that works as well.

In both of these scenarios, the presentation is about what you think, what you care about, and what you think is important to share with the world – not about a strategic plan you might not necessarily buy into, or the dry boring data of the last quarter, or some other topic you’ve been “assigned” to speak about.

It’s crucial that you set up a time to present your practice presentation.  Make it 6-8 weeks in the future if you’d like, but make sure you schedule a time and place where you know you’re going to have to actually deliver it.  It’s the only way you know you’ll stick to it.

Once you’re done, start work on another presentation, and setup another dinner or BBQ. 

In this way, you’re constantly creating presentations you care about, practicing them, and then presenting them in a safe space.  In fact, you may find that colleagues welcome the opportunity to present as well.

The patio at my apartment is host to a monthly get-together where people share the presentations they’ve been using to practice for the last couple of months. 

It’s a chance for people to get together, hone their presentation skills in a safe environment, and of course, have some good food and wine with friends!

2. Ask Yourself, “What Is The Audience Afraid Of?”

What do you talk about more in any given day?  The things that make you happy or the things that frustrate you?

I’ve found that there are two things to which people will always pay attention: things that annoy them, and things that frighten them.  Of the two, I’ve found that it’s easier to capture an audience’s attention by focusing on what they fear.

Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean you should scare the audience!  Rather, it means you should craft your presentations in such a way that the audience sees them as being helpful in addressing their fear.

For instance, my first TEDx talk was supposed to be about leadership.  I asked myself, “when it comes to leadership, what is the audience going to be afraid of?”  I determined that many people were afraid of calling themselves leaders because they thought it would make them look cocky or arrogant, or that they wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations claiming that title brings with it. 

I chose to craft my presentation in a way that tried to demonstrate that fear was unfounded.

When crafting a talk on mental illness, I realized that not everyone in the audience would be able to relate directly to having a mental illness, so I asked, “what universal fear could I address through my personal story of mental illness?” 

I decided to focus on the fears of looking weak, being an embarrassment to those that care about you, and coming off as unemployable.

Those fears are universal, not just present in those with mental illness, and I aimed to create a presentation that talked about how to effectively address those fears, regardless of whether or not you had a mental illness.

However, I demonstrated those approaches through a personal story of dealing with mental illness. 

By creating a presentation that focused on more universal fears, I aimed get people to connect with the less-universal experience of mental illness.

The key is to ask yourself, “what universal fears are related to the subject matter that I want to present?”

3. Make it a Story

If I asked you right now to simply “tell me your story”, what would you say?

When I ran the Leadership Development Program at the University of Toronto, we brought in an amazing man named James Maskalyk, who worked with Doctors Without Borders, to talk about his blog and book, Six Months in Sudan

I asked him why, after days in 50 degree Celsius heat, watching children die from things we can cure with a simple pill here in Canada, he would sit down and relive his experiences through writing his blog.

“Drew,” he said, “the story is the basic unit of human understanding.  If you want people to understand and care about something, you have to make sure you tell it as a story.”

The story is the basic unit of human understanding.  I believe that all effective presentations build off of that fundamental truth.  So take a look at whatever it is that you want people to know as a result of your presentation, and ask yourself, “how can I make this into a story?”

It doesn’t have to be the story of something that has actually happened to you.

It could be the story of what could happen; the story of what has to happen; the story of what will happen if certain things don’t change, but it has to be a story.


4. “Wake Up Broca”

Do you remember a feature on cell phones called T9?

Back when cell phones first started texting, before the advent of “smart phones” with full keyboards, T9 was a feature where you’d type words using your phone keypad, and it would recognize patterns in your typing and guess what word you were likely typing next.

The brain works the same way.  An amazing presenter once told me about “Broca’s Region”, a region of the brain primarily responsible for language recognition. 

However, he said that it’s also part of the brain responsible for recognizing patterns.  Like the “T9” function on phones, Broca’s Region played a role in processing what words had been spoken, and guessing which was going to come next.

This essentially allows the brain to be a little lazy – it doesn’t have to pay total attention to what is being said to understand it.

However, as a speaker, you WANT people to be paying complete attention to what you’re saying.  When they can put their brains on autopilot, you’re far more likely to lose their interest, and they’re far more likely to miss important parts of your presentation.

As a result, my friend pointed out, you have about 45 seconds at the beginning of your presentation to “wake up Broca”, and make the brain think, “hey, this is different, I better pay attention here.”

As such, plan on how you’re going to “wake up Broca” at the opening of your presentation.  I use three main approaches:

  • Pose a question the audience should know but probably doesn’t, e.g., “What are three key values you try to embody every day of your life, and how do you define them?”
  • Pose a question that causes the audience to be self-reflective, e.g., “How many of you in this room are completely comfortable with calling yourself a leader?”
  • Provide an interesting piece of trivia that has something to do with your presentation or with the room you’re speaking in.  For example, I often speak in a large hall in an old building at the University of Toronto.  In the corner is a stone turret like you’d find in a castle, with a spiral staircase.  I often open presentations in that room by asking if people knew that all spiral staircases ascend the same way (clockwise), because most people are right-handed, and it allowed right-handed swordsmen to freely swing their swords downward at attackers.

Whatever you do, avoid the standard, “Hello, my name is X, and today I’d like to speak with you about…”  Feel free to introduce yourself and your credentials early in the presentation, but do not lead with it.  It makes the brain say, “oh, I’ve heard this before, and they’re not going to say anything for a couple of minutes.” 

The problem is, once they tune out, they rarely tune back in.  Too many great presentations lose the audience because they aren’t great fast enough.

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll present strategies for effectively making a point, working with minimal notes, and engaging the audience in your presentation effectively.

I’d Like to Hear Your Comments

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Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.
  • Awang Anwaruddin says:

    Excellent. Thanks a lot for sharing.
    Awang ANWARUDDIN, NIPA Indonesia

  • This is honestly highly effective. Never seen it like this anywhere else before!

  • The sole aim of our being is to show and give off ourselves. I longed for this knowledge, am glad you provided the awesome tips and lovely guide to being a better leader. In the universe just two people exists, the leader and the led. One remains subject though the goal may be mutual but the outcome always projects the brave who thinks and act promptly. I love your post, thanks for making my day and the world will soon thank you for making a leader. I feel blessed.

  • It is always to have a good and intelligent impression at the start and remember always to keep your audience interesting with your topic.

  • Wonderful. This has really given me the leverage to provide a better presentation to my clients. Thanks so much

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