Public speaking is among one of the most commonly cited fears. Even among the most confident leaders and those who consider themselves to be experts, there are many opportunities to improve. In my role as CEO, I am frequently called upon to speak in front of others. These speaking engagements can range from national forums to town hall-style meetings at my own organization. Though I’m experienced, I’ve come to appreciate what an art public speaking really is and how much skill development and PRACTICE is consistently needed to take your abilities to the next level.
Villanova Commencement Speech 2015
Until recently, my public speaking skills have been developed through simple trial and error and learning a few tips from coaches. However, to prepare for a high-profile national speaking engagement, I decided to consult with internationally acclaimed speechwriter and presentation transformation specialist, Lynda Spillane of The Persuasive Word. She’s worked with many heads of state, presidents, and CEO’s to help them improve their public speaking skills. She has helped me to really move to the next level of professionalism in my public speaking. I want to share a few tips I’ve collected over the years, both from my own experience and from experts I’ve worked with:
Speaking at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference 2017
- Be careful of reading. If you have an occasion to speak from talking points, it is important to know that what works well for reading consumption, does not work well for speaking. In other words, if something reads well it doesn’t always sound the same when you are speaking it.
- Ditch the slides. NEVER read from long, dense slides. If you use slides with lots of text, the audience will read them while you’re talking and they won’t listen to you! If you are compelled to use slides, I repeat – PLEASE don’t read each line of your slides.
- Harness your nervous energy. Don’t aim to rid yourself of all nerves before a speech; a bit of nervous energy is okay. Like other types of performances, it helps to keep you on your toes.
- Put the audience first. The most important aspect of public speaking is your relationship with the audience. It is not about you, it is about them. Don’t focus on what you think about your own performance, focus on the experience for the audience.
- Slow down. One of the most common mistakes in public speaking is that most speakers talk too quickly. Remember that the audience needs time to process what you are saying.
- Speak up. In addition to speaking too quickly, many people don’t speak loudly enough. Even if you have a microphone, take a deep breath and make sure you’re projecting your voice.
- Breath. When you get to the podium, take a deep breath, look at the audience, taking your time to look around the room. Make eye contact with them. It will help to build anticipation for what you are about to say. Once you begin, take a deep breath before each sentence so that you can complete the sentence without running out of air. This sounds easy but it actually takes some practice.
- Fake it ‘til you make it. Even if you’re as nervous as can be, there is no reason to share that with the audience. Don’t begin with a self-deprecating statement (read more about that here) and never insinuate that you don’t belong there or that you are nervous.
I highly recommend hiring a coach if public speaking is a regular part of your job. Another coach I’ve worked with is Barbara Pachter of Pachter & Associates. Where have you found helpful advice for conquering public speaking? What are some of your tips? Share them with us!
If you’d like to learn more about working with Lynda Spillane, you can visit her website here.
I recently had the opportunity to meet two very impressive women at an event (as I often do!). During the course of the conversation we began to discuss the events surrounding the Presidential election. One of the women told me that she had the opportunity to follow the family member of a Presidential candidate on the campaign trail. When I asked her how she able to do that, she responded by telling me she was a producer for a major network. I again responded with great enthusiasm and she said, “oh it’s really not a big deal. I just do it part-time…I’m really just a warm body, a hired hand.”
I was so disappointed to hear her response. I was very honest and told her that she really needed to develop an elevator speech that was not so self-deprecating. Her friend replied, “You’re right, she has won two Emmy awards for her work on national news shows! ” Clearly, this woman was accomplished and had built an impressive career. I suggested a few key points to add to her elevator speech so that in similar situations she would be more prepared to respond with a few key points highlighting her competencies and accomplishments.
I often talk to mentees about how to construct and practice their elevator speech. The speech should be about 1-2 minutes, start with a clear articulation of name, your role and a bit about the company you represent. In this story, the women I met could have said:
“I’m Sue Jones, producer at _____ network, where I have worked for ____ years covering such stories as ______. I’ve had the pleasure of being called into action when needed for some of the most interesting stories such as _____.”
Now obviously that can be tailored to feel more off-the-cuff, casual or less structured. Just please be sure to steer clear of self-deprecation or minimizing your real accomplishments, as tempting as it may be to appear humble. If you don’t have an elevator speech, write one today and practice it in the car, or even in an elevator while alone!
I often observe things in a business setting that remind me how far we still have to go. Most times, they are subconscious behaviors or comments made without negative intentions. Nevertheless, they catch my attention. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting held outside of the hospital where I work. I was with a group of colleagues and we were meeting with a team of people – three women and a man, representing 4 separate companies. At the end of the business discussion, each person was asked to tell my colleagues and I a bit about their company.
The three women presented first. The third was relatively young and began by blushing and stating that her colleague who missed the meeting usually presented this information. She continued with a number of self-deprecating statements. I sat there willing her to stop criticizing herself and simply do what I believed she could do – present an overview of her company. She finally did and once she got going, her nerves settled and she was fine. Finally, the last to present was the man. He began by saying, “as you heard the girls just tell you.” I cringed and watched as the young woman who finally found the confidence to speak lowered her head and looked at the floor. Frankly, the man’s comment made me feel like I did not want to do business with him. It was a small statement but very impactful to me. Especially just after having witnessed a young woman work up the courage to participate in a meeting, only to be referred to as a “girl.” After the meeting, another man who had also observed the comment said to me, “do people really still call women girls?” Apparently they do!
Would you have spoken up? How do you think is the best way to respond if you are referred to as a “girl” in a business setting? I can only hope that as more women take leadership positions, more men will realize the defeating nature of a simple label like “girls.” I’d like to see us reach the point when women in the workplace will simply be known as colleagues.
Sue Bell Yank is an arts organizer and writes about social practice in contemporary art. She has worked on the Watts House Project and was formerly the Assistant Director of Academic Programs at the Hammer Museum and the Director for Online Education at the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is currently the Director of Communications and Outreach at 18th Street Arts Center in Los Angeles.
Early on in my career in the arts, I worked at a small non-profit art gallery in Culver City for minimum wage, a couple of days a week. I was going to graduate school at the time, mostly to meet more people in the city and figure out where my place could be. One of my favorite professors was a New York transplant who had decided to make a go of it out west and start one of the most ambitious non-profit gallery programs in the city.
Working for her was not always easy – life is scrappy in a tiny arts non-profit. But the close quarters (literally – we were all squeezed into about 2 cubic yards of space in the “office”) gave me a front-row seat to how an arts organization can be run, and it was the best education I could have gotten. Artists screamed, curators cried, we laughed and drank (sometimes), we gossiped, and tried our very best to produce important contemporary art exhibitions.
But what she ultimately gave me was much more valuable than the 10 dollars an hour I was making. She was connected to a web of artists, students, and arts workers, and unconditionally generous with her contacts. Seeing any possible sparks of interest and commonality, she set about inserting me into this network so I could create threads of my own. One of these introductions was to Edgar Arceneaux, who was embarking on an ambitious community-engaged art project called Watts House Project, which combined arts, social justice, and community participation. Working on that project and all of its complications allowed me to find my place in the art world (supporting the work of socially-engaged artists), my own personal mission (access to arts education for all), and my next job at the Hammer Museum.
To be clear, I wish that I had been paid more, and I always have advocated (mostly unsuccessfully) for paying interns a living wage. However, it’s a sad reality that work in the arts thrives on unpaid or minimum wage entry level positions (a reality I have been complicit in), and this prevents many people who can’t otherwise afford to work for so little from rising up. But non-profits working on incredibly tight budgets have little choice – oftentimes free intern labor means the difference between creating world-class programs and closing up shop. So we trade on cultural capital – connections, community, reputation – in order to gain more clout and opportunity later in our careers.
Cultural capital worked for me, even through those lean years, because of the privileged position I was working from. I vowed I would mentor other young people rising up, connect them, and give them as much advice as I could – but also to advocate for more equity in the arts. I got the opportunity to do that at the Hammer, where much of my job included working with UCLA students as interns and Hammer Student Association members. It’s been one of my greatest pleasures to watch former students infiltrate the rest of the art world, spreading far and wide. Much of this was due to their own ingenuity and drive, but also to the professional opportunities they got at the Hammer. I also wrote more recommendation letters than I can count.
Early on, most of the questions I got were about how to meet people in the art world, how to get connected, how to get opportunities. But recently those questions have shifted a bit. As I grow older, the women I mentor have also grown older – in their mid to late twenties rather than just out of college. And these women are much more concerned about sustainability. How can a job in the art world actually pay enough money to live? How do I balance wanting to have children with a demanding career that more often than not invades your personal life?
I’m not sure what to tell them. The truth is, arts jobs do not pay well. I’m not sure they ever will. And things are not easy for a working mother of two young children in a field where trendsetters have little regard for the need to pick up your children from daycare, feed them, and kiss them goodnight.
The wonderful thing about the arts, though, is that in LA at least, it can be a rich community. There are ways to raise concerns with key members of your community and advocate for change. Many artists and arts administrators I have worked with are caring, thoughtful, social justice-minded people who are all in this together. They wrack their brains and argue about things like education equity, community cohesion, gentrification, gift-based economies…because oftentimes, the best art is about questioning the status quo and considering questions of equity. When I worked a brief stint in the entertainment industry, I missed that. I took a large pay cut to return to the arts, and I’m so much happier amongst my people. The line from the Metric song Other Side kept running through my head:
All we want is to feel like all we got didn’t cost us everything, even if we never win.”
I traded actual capital for social capital, and there found my way again. Forming, maintaining, and sharing a strong web of relationships, finding your community and your mission, and then advocating for yourself and your family in the midst of it is key to making it all work. Another wise former boss of mine told me to “Find your people, and bring new people in.” In any world, that’s possible.