Crap – I couldn’t remember my opening. I had no idea what to do with my hands. I remembered that “thought leaders” usually touch the tips of their fingers together, so I did that.
“Okay,” said the coach. “You have two minutes – Go.”
I was attending a course: High Impact Presentations, conducted by Dale Carnegie Training. This was the first session, where we were given 2 minutes to talk about ourselves in front of an audience. They were also going to film us – judging by the imposing camera at the back of the room.
Screw it. It wasn’t cheap to get here – Slightly less than $2,000 for a two-day programme – so I was going to make the most of it. I forced myself to grin, took a deep breath, and started talking.
The Two-Skill Superpower
Scott Adams – the creator of Dilbert – once said that if you want to be extraordinary, you have two paths:
- Become the best at one specific thing
- Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things
The first strategy is extremely, extremely tough. Most of us will never become Joseph Schooling or win a Nobel Prize. For the 99% of us who aren’t born with amazing abilities, this is a long shot.
The second strategy is much easier. Getting to the top 25% of anything doesn’t usually take much effort: Read the top 5 books in any niche, spend a couple of months practising, and you’re pretty much there. Almost everyone has a couple of skills which they can become the top 25% at.
Let’s take public speaking, for example. It’s a classic “killer app” skill that complements just about any other skill you have. You don’t even need to be in Sales or Marketing – No matter which job you’re doing, being skilled at public speaking can immediately position you as a top performer.
Think about it:
- If your Engineering colleagues can’t present their ideas but you can, you’ll be indispensable to the Product folks who NEED you to explain what the hell you guys are working on
- If you’re the only Product expert who can step on stage without stammering, you’ll be the “thought leader” who can represent your company at conferences
- If you’re the only Marketing person who can pitch an idea to a client, you’ll be the number 1 choice for the newly-created VP of Sales & Marketing position
Why Public Speaking Is The Easiest Superpower
I know what you’re thinking: That might work for “extroverts”, but public speaking just isn’t your thing.
Look, no one is asking you to become Tony Robbins. Public speaking is not about being gimmicky or charismatic on stage – it’s about being able to effectively deliver a message to an audience. That’s it. If you can successfully talk about something to an audience and they appreciate you for it, boom – you’re in the top 25%.
Here’s the good news: Public speaking is so easy to get good at, and so effective at making you extraordinary, that it almost feels like cheating:
- You can upskill in a very short period of time: Unlike say, Java programming or negotiations, it’s easy to improve at public speaking in a short period of time. The “formula” for good public speaking isn’t a secret – Everyone knows the few things that you should/shouldn’t do. All it takes is practice.
- Almost everyone else sucks at it: Nobody is asking you to speak like Steve Jobs. Since most people are so bad at public speaking, you can stand out if you’re simply decent. Don’t believe me? Think back to your last meeting when your colleague was rattling on about “strategic synergies”, and remember how your soul was slowly being crushed into a million pieces. Do better than that, and you’ll immediately stand out.
- It’s easy to get rapid, personalised feedback: There are plenty of opportunities to practice: At team meetings, interviews, client meetings, etc. So it’s easy to identify 1-2 areas to work on, get someone to film you or watch you, and give you feedback. (More on this in the next section)
For example, here are a couple of things I picked up from my Dale Carnegie training:
- Deliberate gesturing: I normally have no idea what to do with my hands when I speak. Sometimes, I’ll be fumbling with the mic, the clicker and my notes. Other times, I’ll look like I’m dancing Para-Para. But I learnt that gesturing can be extremely useful when I want to convey a point. Check out this video of how Steve Jobs masterfully uses a few deliberate, strategic gestures to emphasise his message, even during an off-the-cuff speech.
- Slowing down: I tend to speak fast especially when I’m excited about a topic. I also have this really bad habit of saying “… right?” at the end of every sentence. So slowing down my speaking helps me to avoid these verbal tics, and helps me sound more confident and authoritative.
- Analogies: These are especially useful when you’re describing complex concepts in a technical presentation. A colleague once explained the concept of an “API” to me using the analogy of a door (“An API endpoint is like a door which can be opened, so you can retrieve the information you want on the other side”). When I heard it, I was like “ZOMG I SEE THE LIGHT!!!”
How Acquire This Superpower
Now, here’s what most people will do: They’ll Google “How to improve in public speaking”, read a couple of dumb listicles, and call it a day. That’s like thinking you can get a six-pack from Googling “How to get abs”. Stupid.
Instead, here’s a practical strategy anyone could use to improve their public speaking skills:
Step 1: Get Training
In my opinion, the best form of training is personalised, in-person training involving lots and lots of practice. Try to get your company to sponsor it if you can. During my Dale Carnegie training, we presented at least 8 times in two days, 6 of which were recorded on video. After we were done with each presentation, we headed to a separate room where a coach reviewed our video footage with us and gave us personalised feedback.
Can’t afford an expensive course? Join meetups like Toastmasters Singapore, which also gives you plenty of practice opportunities to get feedback. Or borrow/buy the 5 best public speaking books and read them. You’ll soon start to see a few common recurring themes, which you can then use as focus areas.
Step 2: Practice, Practice, Practice
Get every opportunity you can to deliver presentations. You don’t have to wait for your boss to “arrow” you for some high-level industry conference with hundreds of attendees.
Instead, start small: Present at team meetings, run internal workshops for your colleagues, volunteer for any opportunities you can. Create your own lunchtime talk if you have to. In my previous job, we used to organise an informal TED talk where we’d all tapao lunch, huddle in a studio, and listen to someone talk about making chilli, innovation, or poetry.
Give it a try and simply put your hand up – you might be surprised at how receptive people are.
Step 3: Get Feedback And Improve
Go to a trusted friend/colleague who’s pretty good at presenting and ask for their feedback. Say something like:
“Hey, so I’m trying to improve my public speaking skills this year. I’ve always admired the way you deliver your presentations, and I’d love to get your advice. I’ll be giving a short presentation tomorrow about <topic>, and if you’re available, I was wondering if you could spare 15 mins to sit in and give me some honest feedback?”
Sure, I know it sounds “weird”, but think about it – when was the last time someone complimented you and asked for your help? When you ask for help in a sincere, genuine way, most people will say yes.
Now, I’d love to hear from you: How important do you think public speaking is? What barriers have you faced when it comes to speaking in front of an audience? Let me know in the comments below.