Personal Impact - Public Speaking
by Byron Kalies

There are some people who walk into a room and you can almost feel the energy levels in the room double. Other people walk into a room and seem to drain the room of energy - energy vampires.

There are people you do business with that you instantly warm to; they make you feel relaxed, you instantly trust and respect them. What is it that gives some people that particular brand of influence and authority?

A lot of people use a single word or a glib phrase to hide behind:

  • "Oh, that'll be charisma, that will."
  • "You can't buy that and put it in a jar."
  • "Leaders are born, not made",
  • " I'm just not a natural leader so what's the point?",
  • "It's just something you're born with - you're either lucky or you're not." etc., etc.

But as Arnold Palmer famously said when asked about his lucky shots from bunkers; "It's a funny thing, the more I practice the luckier I get".

Perhaps the key aspect to this charisma, personal impact or whatever you'd like to call it is communicating. This is how you will frequently be judged. You will be judged on your actions but unless you tell people what you are going to do, who will remember and who will be motivated?

There's the story of Winston Churchill, one of the best, most 'natural' speakers of the last century. Churchill, like so many leaders, was not born a compelling speaker. In one of his first speeches to Parliament in 1904 he delivered it without notes and had to cut short as he become totally lost. He had to sit down in embarrassment. He was quoted as saying that this would never happen again. From then on he prepared relentlessly for every speech he ever made. For every one minute of delivery he spent an hour preparing. So it wasn't unusually for him to prepare 30 or 40 hours for one speech.

Although a lot of research indicates that how you say it has more immediate impact than what you say, what you say will be remembered for a great deal longer. So, make sure you're clear about what you're saying, especially what your intention is. If your intention is to be helpful and honest, people will forgive many deficiencies in body language, tone, etc. So be absolutely clear what you're intention is, then check that this is the effect that the others' take away.

On the whole people are pretty good at picking up intentions. People, being a bit like me and you, are quite clever. We generally know when someone is lying, or "being economical with the truth" or whatever the current acronym is. As a leader however, it's good practice not to totally rely on your good intentions. You may have the best intention in the world but if the audience is not in tune with you they may not recognise this. This could be due to all sorts of reasons - some history with you, previous leaders, something currently going on in the workplace that you know nothing about, etc. If this is the case the effect you have on your audience may not be the same as your intention and you will need to rethink. It's vital that you find out what the effect is as well as being sure of your intention.

A famous example of this would be the speech made by Gerald Ratner to 6,000 directors in 1992. He was head of the Ratner Group, his family jewellery business, which he had built up since 1984 to have sales of 1.2 bn. He, jokingly, referred to a sherry decanter on sale in his shops as 'crap'. This one mistake wiped 500 m off the company's value, turned the previous year's 121 m profit into a 122 m loss and cost him his personal fortune and his job. Now I'm fairly sure his intention wasn't to say that his shops were selling rubbish, but that was certainly the effect.

Studies show that leaders appear more powerful by acting as they think leaders should act. "Fake it till you make it" would be one way of describing this process; The more you act like a strong, powerful person the easier it is for people to regard you as this and the easier it is for you to become this.

If you have someone in mind you respect as a role model that makes this process even easier. Copy what they do when they enter a room, answer a question, etc. Suddenly after a few weeks of acting authoritatively you realise you aren't acting anymore. Within a few more weeks you'll start adapting and developing your own style.

In terms of public speaking there are a number of simple, straightforward tips that can make a huge difference. From the beginning you've got to "take control of the environment" as, I think, Al Pacino advocates. This means everything you can control you control; the physical aspects: lighting, temperature, drinks, food, numbers, seating arrangements, screen, handouts, etc. - the 'non-physical' aspects: introductions, questioning policy, number of slides, timing, your appearance, knowledge of the audience, your preparation, posture, etc. etc.

In a little more detail - ensure you do take control of as much of the physical environment as you can, or get someone you really trust and recognises the importance of, to do it. Don't be distracted by "Oh, it'll be OK - it's the same as last time". Say "show me" and check, check, check and have back ups for everything.

Also recognise that even having done everything you can do isn't enough. Things will happen that you haven't thought about. You know this so don't pretend it won't. When that fire alarm goes off accidentally, or the police rush in chasing an armed robber you need to adapt and stay focused. You shouldn't start thinking about who to blame. Well, not for the time being at least.

However, the truly vital aspects of public speaking are the non- physical aspects. Make sure your introduction (if you're having one) is correct, and more importantly, is what you want. Send your introduction beforehand (and bring a copy along with you in case they forget it. If you're making a speech in front of 500 people don't let yourself be introduced with; "Tonight we have someone making their first speech in front at a large audience so please be gentle on them." Tempting though it may seem to get some audience sympathy it just doesn't work. In a classic experiment two sets of students were given identical lectures and told that the first lecturer was new, and the second an expert. Guess which one received vastly better ratings?

Some quick tips on presenting; Please no 'death by Powerpoint' - unless it's vital (people get bored). Keep handouts until the end - unless it's vital (people get distracted). Mix up your presentation - talk, action, slides, move (people get sleepy).

Practical things to do:

  • Stand straight and tall - taller people are perceived as having more authority.
  • Don't lean against anything - you look too casual and relaxed.
  • Maintain eye contact with a number of people.
  • Establish rapport with the audience - mention people's names, choose people in the group you know, or are popular.
  • Don't talk for longer than you need to - if it's a twenty minute presentation but the room's booked for an hour stop after twenty minutes. Don't be tempted to 'fill the time'.
  • If possible allow far more time for questions than speeches.
  • The smaller the group the better your message will get across - there are of course practical considerations for this.

There are some leaders who, I admit, do have that special 'something'. But I guess they've worked extremely hard at developing other aspects of themselves, and I really believe anyone can learn to lead. The outside part is easy (well relatively). The hardest part is inside - the intention and the vision. If these are solid then with a fair amount of hard work, the rest will follow.

Byron Kalies is a Liverpool-based writer with 12 years' international experience as a management consultant. Recent publications include Across The Board (U.S.A.), Career Times (Hong Kong), CEO Refresher (Canada) of course, Guardian (U.K.), Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), MIS (U.K.), Management First (U.K.), Lifelong Learning (U.S.A.), Business Day (South Africa), Business Plus (Ireland). Book "25 Management Techniques in 90 Minutes" (Management Books 2000) published April 2005. He can be contacted through his web site at or emailed at .

Many more articles in Presentations & Public Speaking in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by Byron Kalies. All rights reserved.

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