Getting Comfortable on the Podium

While CEOs are expected to display leadership talents, some of the skills they need for the job must be learned. And, anyone who has stood for the first time before a large audience — very possibly with shaking knees and a sweat-beaded brow — knows that some of those lessons take time and lots of preparation to learn.


Sure, it’s scary, but the suprising truth is, usually it’s not what you say, but how you say it when it comes to public speaking by Linda Kleindienst Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

“According to most studies, people’s No. 1 fear is public speaking. No. 2 is death. Death is No. 2. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” —Jerry Seinfeld

Not everyone is a natural born orator. But that’s no excuse if you’re a business leader who is asked to give a speech before the local Rotary Club, at a business conference — or even to your own employees.

While CEOs are expected to display leadership talents, some of the skills they need for the job must be learned. And, anyone who has stood for the first time before a large audience — very possibly with shaking knees and a sweat-beaded brow — knows that some of those lessons take time and lots of preparation to learn.

There is no end to the advice that books and the Internet can offer on how to give a speech and enthrall your audience. Much of it sounds like common sense, but rational thought often escapes us when we are paralyzed with terror at the thought of facing an audience with upturned faces that reveal their eagerness to hear our message.

“We have a primal fear of public speaking,” says Lise Diez-Arguelles, an associate in business communication at Florida State University’s College of Business. “Think back to primitive times. The adrenaline, the nervous movements, the voice shaking. We’re worried about being killed up there.”

The key, she adds, is to figure out what parts of your body betray nervousness and learn how to mask it.

“Most of us are horrible at public speaking. You have to recognize your weaknesses and then fix them,” she counsels. “Audiences want a speaker to do well and feel uncomfortable if they feel the speaker is uncomfortable.”

She and other experts in the field also say it is important to know your audience, limit yourself to making a few key points and allow the real you to shine through in the presentation.

Prep, prep and more prep

Stefania Lucchetti, an author and professional speaker who has worked with Fortune 500 companies and written public speaking articles for Six Minutes, a website that focuses on how to become a confident and effective speaker, urges intense preparation for and then frequent rehearsal of a speech.

“You should know your material inside out, know it so well that you can have the flexibility to weave in new things,” Lucchetti recently wrote for Six Minutes. “Just like when playing a sport, or dancing, or practicing martial arts, it is when you really know your moves, when you have mastered them to a point where they are natural to you, that you can be the most flexible, open to improvisation and engaged in the moment.”

The key to a good speech is knowing the audience that you are trying to reach. Most importantly, research your topic so that you can provide specific information or statistics that your audience will find relevant.

“Concrete and specific details improve the strength of your arguments, and thus make your overall message more persuasive,” urges Andrew Dlugan, an award-winning public speaker and speech evaluator who is editor and founder of Six Minutes. “Explaining the theory behind why your new solution will raise profits is a good start; sharing a story about a company which raised profits by 17 percent by adopting your solution is much stronger.”

When deciding what to say, consider the length of time you are speaking. For a short speech, consider limiting yourself to one key point, suggests Doug Staneart, president of The Leader’s Institute, an international training and consulting company that focuses on team building and public speaking. If the talk is longer than 30 minutes, the limit should be three key points.

“Ask yourself, ‘If my audience only remembered one thing from my talk, what would be the most important thing for them to remember?’ The reason this is so important is that the human mind likes to think of only one thing at a time.”

Diez-Arguelles also cautions that audiences don’t like to listen. Half are probably thinking about what they had for breakfast or they’re sitting there daydreaming.

So, the best idea is to tell them what you’re going to tell them — and then tell them again. And remember: “A really good speaker has an attention getter at the top.”

Cater to your audience

“It’s always about the audience. It’s not about you,” said Diez-Arguelles. “I tell my students, don’t you dare get up in front of a group of people without knowing why you’re there. Make your topic work and know they expect a good speaker.”

When trying to connect to your listeners, Dlugan also points out the need to make a speech understandable, logical and real.

“If your audience doesn’t understand you, they can’t be persuaded by you,” he wrote in 17 Easy Ways to be a More Persuasive Speaker.

To be an effective communicator, he says the speaker must “use words, phrases, examples and visuals that are understandable. And you’ve got to deliver them at a pace the audience can absorb.”

Leave the power point presentation at home, limit your speech to a maximum of 20 minutes and remember the rule of threes. People, therefore audiences, like to think in terms of three.

“We humans don’t like to go beyond,” says Diez-Arguelles. “If you stretch it to five or six points, forget it.”

Agrees Staneart, “The more points your presentation has, the less focus the audience will have on each individual point.”

Your body counts

Last but not least, what you wear when you are giving a speech can be critical. Especially for women.

Men wear business suits that enhance their dominance. They look powerful and audiences respond to that.

For credibility, women have to minimize sexual signaling, says Diez-Arguelles. “Cleavage is out. And cover the elbow.

“Remember that 55 percent of our messages come from our body while 38 percent is from our voice. At the very end is content, 7 percent,” she adds. “If your audience is stopped along the way from your actions or expression or dress or the sound of a squeaky voice, they won’t have access to your message.” n


On the Six Minutes website,, you will find a host of stories, blog entries, strategies and tips about how to prepare for and give notable speeches. Hosted by Andrew Dlugan, the site also offers critiques of speeches that have been given by people like Al Gore and Steve Jobs.


Helpful how-tos on speech prep

Lise Diez-Arguelles has been teaching business communications for 12 years. Here are some of her tips on how to prepare for and give a good speech — and deliver a message that your audience will remember:

  • Film yourself in practice. Figure out what parts of your body betray your nervousness — and learn how to mask it.
  • Eye contact is critical. Look at your audience. Scan the room so that you can think and look at the same time. Learn to look from person to person, but don’t look too long at any one individual. You’ll get better with time and practice.
  • Don’t read a power point. Power points have evolved into a crutch. Anyone can get up in front of a room and read a power point, but audiences can read them faster than you can. If you must use a power point, use it to enhance the visuals that accompany your speech.
  • Keep your hands out. Audiences like visible hands. And turn your palms outward toward the audience — it’s a more welcoming signal.
  • Don’t play with your clothes or hair. Even in gangs, the person who moves the least is usually the most powerful person. A lot of speech-giving involves acting. Don’t scratch, pull and, especially, don’t ummmm your way through your speech. The audience will focus on any nervous movement you have.
  • You know? If you have to say you know, you know, you know, the audience will start counting.
  • The rule of threes. Three points for any length of speech is enough. Organize your thoughts. If you give your audience threes, they’ll listen to see if you hit them.
  • Throw in some emotion. About 90 percent of the population is persuaded by logic, but 10 percent is more persuaded by emotion. You need to have at least one emotional point mixed in with your logic, then you can have 100 percent coverage.
  • The clincher. At the end, deliver a clincher that ties into your beginning attention getter, “because sometimes an audience doesn’t know when to clap because they don’t know when it’s over.”