How to become a Public Speaking Artist, not an Athlete

Many people believe that a fear of public speaking can be overcome with an effort to “increase confidence.” That is, if you just felt more confident about yourself, public speaking would come more easily or naturally to you.

This is incorrect. An increase in confidence does not make you a better public speaker. It may make it easier for you to get up on stage in the first place, but there is little causation between the two.

This is because of a fundamental error in thinking about public speaking: we treat it like a sport. Many trace this to a diving board analogy: if you don’t climb that ladder in the first place, you have no chance of being able to dive off the board. 

But I think the better way of thinking about it is as an art form – like singing, painting or playing an instrument. Sure, there are sports-related similarities there too (practice, practice, practice) and a 10,000 hour rule to consider, but the difference between a sport and an art is stark.

Most art practice happens in a safe space. Often, this is just you, or you and an instructor, or you and other artists. Unlike a sport, with its constant public trials and frequent team-based sprints, an artist generally gets to decide when they are ready to face the crowd – when they are good enough to be heard/seen/felt publicly. 

In sport (and I have personal experience here), you are often first exposed to something in a group setting, where you’re cajoled, ridiculed and laughed at unless you climb that board. Yes, you’re up on the board, but unless you generally enjoy what you’re doing, you’re highly unlikely to get good at it.

So this is why I cringe everytime I see people try to push themselves onto a more public stage than they are ready for as speakers, pitchers or meeting leaders with some unfounded – and counterproductive – belief that exposure therapy is somehow the right cure here. It may be for some, but definitely not for all. 

This “dive head first” approach leads people to make several mistakes that ultimately frustrate their ability to thrive as professional communicators. Here are a few of my least favorite examples:

Relying on Gimmicks

All gimmicks are bad in public speaking, unless they are categorically your own and part of your brand. Trying to be funny to deflect attention from your mediocre content and delivery doesn’t work. Using video clips may help give you a minute or two of breathing room, but audiences remember it if you rely too much on the video. Even fancy slides, graphics and animations only work briefly – a lesson most executives need to learn. In some cases these elements can be good, but no matter how fancy your visuals are, if your spoken presentation doesn’t kill, slides, jokes, etc, won’t help you.

Just Do It

You may be able to persuade, guilt, cajole or even bribe your way onto a stage to give a presentation, and many speaking coaches will advise you to do this as much and as often as you can. But whether you’re trying to establish yourself as an investable startup CEO, a leader of tomorrow or a thoughtful exponent of misunderstood truths, the more often you screw up as a speaker  in front of influencers, the fewer opportunities you will receive. This will only make you less likely to want to do more speaking, and others less likely to “book” you to do it. It’s essential to nail your pacing for when you finally step out on the stage – and in the meantime you need professional help in a lower-stakes environment.

Being Overly Rehearsed

Many speakers believe that the greatest risk they have is they’ll forget their “lines”, and they believe that overcoming this will enable them to succeed in communications. But the biggest risk you have as a speaker is that the audience won’t pay attention to you sufficiently to understand what you have to say. And if your speech is overly rehearsed, and preoccupied with slavishly following every word you write down, you are likely to seem inauthentic. You become a monotonal, droning teacher – like the one from Peanuts – much faster than you realize. The crucial thing is to convey fewer ideas, better. That usually means less focus on memorizing specific words, and more attention on how to structure and communicate your ideas in a compelling way. The A-Ha! Method for memorization is designed to solve this problem while maintaining authenticity.

Imagining People Naked, etc.

The intent of this kind of gimmick is clear – change the narrative for potential embarrassment and lower the “temperature” of the challenge. However, the audience isn’t naked, and you really should spend the time prior to your talk getting in the zone. Once your talk has started, you shouldn’t be thinking about anything other than your talk itself. Adding cognitive load during these phases is precisely the wrong thing to do, and I advise working to calm/silence those extraneous thoughts. Some concepts from mindfulness and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) find their way into my coaching/training work, and the idea is to reframe the problem without adding distraction.

There are, of course, many other gimmicks speakers use to try and master their craft. Some may work for you, and others not. But if you’re hoping to improve your professional communication skills, you need to follow an approach (method) that looks holistically at all the moving parts. Mastery of your material, voice and tone are crucial, and comprehensive techniques like the A-Ha! Method can help you improve your communications across the board by building substantive – not gimmicky – confidence.

Great artists generally develop their own, highly-personalized approaches to creation – but the best always begin by learning a craft from an expert and using a system to approach their subjects. The same is true of professional public speaking, and while your best slide decks may never hang on the wall of the Louvre, Youtube is forever. 


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 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. 


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.


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. 


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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