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Public Speaking is the Critical 21st Century Skill

When someone says the phrase “public speaking,” most of us feel a pang of anxiety and visualize an expert holding forth from the middle of TED’s red circle. 

But public speaking in the 21st century has evolved to be so much more than what we imagine – though no less frightening. And the pandemic’s effect on professional life has only increased its importance. 

It’s believed that in the future of work, people will be more independent and “gig-oriented,” bringing the skill of Pitching from the sales floor to every corner of the enterprise. Moreover workers will increasingly need to run Meetings that take place in the semi-remote workplace of the future, partly over Zoom and partly live. Additionally, Persuasive Communications will become more important as increasing automation makes strategy the primary focus of workers. And as startups continue to out-innovate established companies, Fundraising (or financial communication) will be more and more in-demand. This says nothing of the importance of influencer culture on marketing, and the continued ascent of professional spokespeople on the corporate ladder.

In short, it’s more important than ever to be a good public speaker, and for companies to put professional communications front and center in Learning and Development (L&D) strategies. Let’s take a closer look at how these skills have changed for today’s workplace and the implications for professionals. 

Pitching

Pitching usually conjures up scenes from Mad Men or Glengarry Glen Ross of salespeople relentlessly making cold calls to close business. But as corporate strategy has shifted from top-down and multi-year investment to decentralized, democratized and more agile, the need for good pitching skills becomes crucial for employees at every level. If you want to make yourself heard and ideas adopted, you must be good at pitching. 

Good 21st century pitches are short and to-the-point so that they combat device distraction. They leverage the power of “A-Ha! Moments” to get the audience to yes as quickly as possible. And most importantly, they convey the importance of the project through emotional appeals, with numbers supporting the idea rather than leading it. 

Meetings

Even as the number of meetings has exploded in corporate life, the way we run meetings has changed little. Sure, sometimes we stand and others we sit. Sometimes it’s 45 minutes instead of 60. Or, sometimes you’re on back-to-back Zoom calls for 7 straight hours without a bathroom or lunch break. 

To adapt to this modern melee, leaders need to be able to control the crowd, marshall resources and ensure everyone is engaged while juggling distractions and tech requirements. This will be even more complex as we start to return to work and meetings become permanently local-remote hybrids. To succeed, you’ll need to up your ZoomQ. 

Persuasive Communication

It’s always been true that great leaders are masters of persuasion. Obviously, landing a phenomenal deal, speaking to press/customers, convincing investors to lay down their cash, or getting key employees out of a competitor are all actions that get someone noticed – and promoted. 

But the way we persuade has changed as a result of social media-induced cynicism and device distraction. No matter how compelling you might be, it’s hard to convince someone to follow your lead if they are multi-tasking on Instagram or find you inauthentic/overly rehearsed. To succeed professionally going forward, we must be able to persuade sincerely and effectively, keeping attention spans in mind.

Fundraising

As entrepreneurship increases its appeal and share of the economic landscape, so too does the need for good fundraising skills. Fundraising pitches are similar to sales pitches and general public speaking, but follow some different rules that must be adhered to. Intrapreneurs, in particular, may need extra support to develop this skill. 

Primarily, to excel in today’s fundraising climate, you need to be highly structured, optimized for emotion, and able to condense your ideas into a short timeframe. Investors love to say “no,” so the critical job of any fundraising pitch (internal or external) is to avoid the “no,” and modern techniques of public speaking should enable this skill transfer for professionals.

Influencer Culture

As the power of social media has grown, so too have the number of people who need basic media training / performance skills. The current moment has spawned an Influencer Culture, where individuals create their persona and brand identity to generate followers (and purchases) online. 

But companies and executives also want to be influential. This means being comfortable with the small screen / camera, natural and engaging, and compelling in a way that gets someone to keep watching instead of swiping left. You can see this in the phenomenal social media skills of various CEOs, like Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO, Mike Sievert – approachable celebrities in the Twittersphere. 

Spokespeople

Concomitant with the rise of social media and influencers, is the need to effectively interface with the public, including investors, consumers, regulators and other stakeholders. Media training orthodoxy has always held that a select few executives should be held out as spokespeople, and their words carefully chosen at all times.


But this kind of rigid structure is not what the moment demands. People want authenticity and honesty. As we’ve seen in congressional testimony by countless executives this is simply not a skill that most executives possess. If you want to level up your skills and grow your influence internally, one of the best abilities is being able to communicate effectively with the outside (or other side, as with Pete Buttigieg and Fox News). 

In Summary
The future of work has always been somewhat uncertain, vacillating between inertia (everyone works 9-5) and outrageous disruption (everyone works remote). As our workplaces and personal lives continue their inexorable merging, and technology increases exponentially, things will change again. 

Primarily, the ability to communicate effectively in the changing world should be a skill possessed by a wide swath of current and aspiring professionals. The future demands that everyone is able to pitch, run a meeting, persuade, fundraise, influence and speak on behalf of their employer. 

Public speaking today is so much more than TED talks and hokey elocution lessons. It is the most important skill set for tomorrow’s leaders, and one in which companies and individuals must invest. 

To find out more about how to improve your personal or organization’s Public Speaking in the 21st Century, check out our new online Course.

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