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Why you suck at public speaking: you’ve been lied to

Every professional is involved in public speaking, be it a client presentation or on a conference stage, and most people are quite bad at it – here are some truths to combat the “do what feels natural” lie.

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Public speaking: we all do it, but we’re not all good at it

“Communication is all about doing what feels natural… I have a style that works for me, and you should find your style as well.”

I’m over it. I can’t count the number of times I have heard some variation of the above phrase. It infuriates me every time. Why? Because it’s stupid. It’s lazy. It’s ignorant. And it’s pervasive.

Employees roll their eyes when you stand up to speak. Clients don’t buy from you. Industry conferences don’t ask you to join the panel (or invite you back). And yet- you continue doing the same thing.

You are not unique. I see it all the time, particularly among people who speak often. They become victims to what I call the “curse of the compliment.” In an audience of 1000, two people tell them the speech is great. That must mean everyone thinks they are great, right? Wrong. The speech sucked and they will never grow their business if they don’t improve. Good luck telling them that, though.

You might not be speaking in front of thousands, but you do presentations and public speaking, whether you like it or not. As Tony Jeary’s book articulates so well, “Life is a Series of Presentations.”

Don’t be a victim of “do what feels natural”

People approach communication in its various forms (meetings, presentations, interviews) unlike they approach any other activity. Like Happy Gilmore’s golf strategy- they do what feels natural. Unfortunately, this is not a movie. In real life, if you hit a golf ball like you are playing Hockey- you will be terrible. There is a right and wrong to golf. There are best practices and worst practices. Golf is predictable. If you have a bad golf swing (Charles Barkley notwithstanding), you will be a bad golfer.

And so it goes with communication. Don’t be a victim of the “do what feels natural” lie. I offer you a few truths to combat this lie:

  1. Great communication is not ‘natural.’ As long as you believe that the skills that create influence, build rapport, and move audiences are born into your genetics, you will have no reason to actively work to improve your performance. Belief in what I call the birth myth is the surest route to your stagnation.

    Any time you think that you can’t improve- consider Bill Clinton. Lauded as one of the great rhetors of the last 30 years, he was heckled and had his mic turned off during his first speech in front of a national audience (DNC- 1988).

  2. Communication habits develop over time. The way each person communicates in a given scenario is the result of past feedback they have received. Unfortunately, we are often given bad feedback that leads us to adopt bad habits- demonstrations of aggression, fear, or indifference . At some point, typically when we are young, we had an experience that taught us that such a strategy provided our best chance to deliver the results we sought (safety, anonymity, control, power). Over time, these behaviors became habits. These habits became identity forming.
  3. We can change our behaviors. We are not stuck in the communication patterns of our past. But we are only able to change if we separate our communication strategies from who we are as people. We must think of communication like we think of golf, not like we think of our personality.

Changing long-rooted bad habits takes two elements:

  1. Knowledge: become aware of how you are perceived. Identify key areas that limit you (posture, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, verbal padding, voice, message clarity, etc.).
  2. Practice: actively work to improve. Habits that have taken years to develop don’t go away over night, but they can go away over time.

My question for you is this: are you willing to take the time to learn how you are perceived in your communication habits? Are you willing to do the work to change it?

Curt Steinhorst loves attention. More specifically, he loves understanding attention. How it works. Why it matters. How to get it. As someone who personally deals with ADD, he overcame the unique distractions that today’s technology creates to start a Communications Consultancy, The Promentum Group, and Speakers Bureau, Promentum Speakers, both of which he runs today. Curt’s expertise and communication style has led to more than 75 speaking engagements in the last year to organizations such as GM, Raytheon, Naval Academy, Cadillac, and World Presidents’ Organization.

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Don Reedy

    February 11, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Curt, you are “like so right on, dude.” Everyone, as you say, has his/her own story. Mine goes as follows, and I’m only sharing briefly because your article will help me fix a problem.
    I am easy going, love puns and words, and pay attention to people…so much more than I think most do. That habit makes we want to share and share and share. But when speaking I tend to talk too long, write too long, communicate too long.
    So thanks for the advice on changing old habits. Today, while I could go on and on, I’ll just say thanks for letting me know I should “practice” what I “know.”

  2. Chip Eichelberger

    February 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    The best way to see if you do suck, is to record your presentation ideally with video, it takes guts to record it and more to watch it. Are you interesting to listen to and watch? Likely not. Get some. Coaching.

    • Curt Steinhorst

      February 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      Excellent insight Chip…coming from one of the best in the business.

  3. Missy Caulk

    February 11, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    I tend to speak from the heart my passion. If I start to use notes…it is not good. Therefore I never take on something I truly don’t believe it. Any recommendations for me?

    • Curt Steinhorst

      February 12, 2013 at 10:03 am

      I’m sure you are not alone. I would have to see you speak to give precise feedback. As a general rule, organized thinking (I recommend a detailed outline) is necessary for effective communication. What you are describing sounds like an anxiety issue. We reduce anxiety by taking hold of the lies we let float through our head prior to a speech (I’m going to forget, people won’t laugh, people will laugh at me…etc) and replacing them with truth.

      I’m happy to chat more about this offline.

  4. Richard I. Garber

    February 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Curt:

    Another lie that lots of people fall for is that public speaking is the number one or the greatest fear. If you look beyond the silly old 1977 Book of Lists, you will see that’s nonsense:
    https://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/10/either-way-you-look-at-it-public_23.html

    Richard

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Business Entrepreneur

What’s the difference between an accelerator and an incubator program?

(ENTREPRENEUR) When considering your options for growing your startup, do you know how an accelerator differs from an incubator? The differences are bigger than many realize…

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There are now more options than ever when it comes to applying to as well as choosing the best startup accelerator or incubator.

For those of you who may be new to the startup world (welcome!), I’ve compiled some helpful information to determine the difference between an accelerator and incubator, and which one might be best for your company.

Yes, all programs tout value to burgenoning businesses such as business plan assistance, introduction to other founders and mentors, and most importantly, guidance on fundraising to VCs and angels. But what’s the difference? Here’s the lowdown:

Incubators:

Incubators are built specifically for founders that are at the initial stages of starting their companies and don’t have set program timelines.

Unlike accelerators, incubators operate on a less structured time schedule with less programming and resources, and it’s not uncommon for a company in an incubator program to last for several months or even years.

Incubators typically offer their portfolio companies free office space, business plan advice, and mentorship.

The incubator may offer assistance in introducing your company to potential investors, but it’s not always the main purpose of the program (whereas the majority of accelerators have “demo days” where founders specifically pitch to potential investors).

Incubators are especially popular in local economies and can be run by organizations like non-profits, civic organizations, co-working spaces, and universities. Since incubators have less of a time requirement and offer less resources, you’ll only need to commit to a small amount of equity, often around 1%.

Accelerators:

Accelerators are more focused, time-intensive structured programs for companies with a proof of concept/minimum viable product (MVP) and market validation.

Accelerators do just that: accelerate company growth for startups with proven potential to exit (either eventually sell or go public). Because of this, accelerator interview processes are typically extensive and competitive.

Most programs can last anywhere from 10 weeks to 3-4 months. With many top accelerators, you’ll be expected to move to the city where it’s hosted and spend 40+ hours a week minimum in their dedicated coworking space, and several accelerators offer housing stipends to make the move easier.

These programs typically conclude with a demo day to pitch your product to a variety of community leaders, angel, and institutional investors.

Many accelerators are industry-agnostic, but some specialize in specific industries such as The Brandery or Comcast LIFT Labs.

Accelerators offer exclusive access to investors, web hosting credits, other perks, and special access to program mentors as well as program alumni.

Because of this, the equity required is often somewhere in the range from 3% to 6%.

Y Combinator, one of the most prestigious accelerators in Silicon Valley, invests $150,000 in each startup in addition to its program for a 7% equity stake.

Overall, incubators and accelerators can offer extensive value for founders, but make sure to research carefully when choosing a program. Next up, we’ll talk about choosing the best accelerator for your company and founding team, so stay tuned!

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Business Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs: You’re unemployable in your own company, must define your role

(ENTREPRENEURS) Once you’ve built a successful business, it’s time to reexamine your role and determine where you fit in best.

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In my experience, most entrepreneurs are “accidental entrepreneurs.” They happened to be good at something, or they had a unique one-time opportunity to provide a product or service to the market. Then years later, they wake up one day and realize that they’re running a big business.

As an entrepreneur, one of the unintended consequences of building a business is that you become essentially unemployable within your own organization. After living the life of freedom, flexibility and responsibility of being a business owner, it’s difficult to go back to a “nine-to-five” job. This is why many entrepreneurs don’t enjoy staying with their businesses after they’ve sold to other organizations. Within months, they are frustrated that they’re no longer in control and the new owners are (in their opinion) making poor choices.

I see many situations where entrepreneurs are bad employees in their own organization. In fact, they may be the worst team members in the organization by having inconsistent schedules or poor communication skills and/or by inserting themselves into areas that aren’t useful. They can also have too much freedom and flexibility. And while most entrepreneurs insist on clearly defined roles, expectations and goals for all of their employees, they don’t always take the time to define their own roles, expectations and goals.

So why do entrepreneurs become bad employees?

I believe that it’s because they don’t have someone holding them accountable. Think about it: Who do they report to? They’re the owners. Part of the definition of “owner” is being accountable for everything but not accountable to anyone. Having a board of directors, a peer group or a business coach can provide some accountability for them, but another solution is to clarify their roles in the company and then abide by those definitions.

If you find yourself “unemployable” in your business, it’s time to define your role. It starts with outlining your main focus. Do you concentrate more on day-to-day execution or strategic, long-term decisions? Do you consider yourself an owner-operator or an investor?

Most entrepreneurs start as an owner-operator and put in countless hours of sweat equity doing whatever needs to be done to build the business. But over time they reinvest earnings in the business and hire a management team so they can step back and take on a more strategic role. Sometimes it’s not clear when the entrepreneur makes that transition, which can lead to challenges for the entire team.

Focus: Strategic Overview

If your main role is in dealing with long-term, strategic decisions, then it’s important for you to communicate that to the team. Clearly delegate tactical roles and responsibilities to the leadership team.

I’ve seen many instances where owners do more harm than good by haphazardly injecting themselves into tactical decisions that should be handled by the leadership team. Instead of jumping in when they see something they disagree with, I encourage owners to actively “coach” their leadership team to be better leaders. The approach of micromanaging every decision of others will frustrate everyone and lead to an underperforming organization.

I have one client that decided his role was to build strategic relationships and work on a new service offering. He was confident that his leadership team could handle the day-to-day operations of the business. Over time he discovered that being in the office every day was actually a distraction for him and his team. So, he moved his office out of the building.

To maintain his ownership responsibilities to the company, he scheduled one afternoon a week to physically be in the office. Team members knew they could schedule time with him during that weekly window when he temporarily set up office space in a conference room. Not having a permanent office in the building also sent a message to the team that he was not responsible for day-to-day decisions. Sometimes not having an office in the building is better than the team seeing the owner’s office empty on a regular basis.

Focus: Day-to-Day Execution

If you decide that your role is in the day-to-day execution of the business, then clearly define your role in the same way you would define any other team member role. Are you in charge of marketing? Sales? Finance? Operations? Technology? R&D? Or, some combination of multiple roles? Take the time to outline your responsibilities and communicate them to the team.

Just as you define your role, also define what you are NOT going to do and who is responsible for those areas. After all, sectioning off some tactical work does not abdicate you from long-term decision-making. You must set aside time to make the long-term, strategic decisions of the company.

Being an entrepreneur sounds glamorous to those that haven’t done it, but ultimately, the owner is accountable for everything that happens in their organization. It can be quite sobering. And while some entrepreneurs have a delusional belief that they can do everything in a company, it’s not a path to long-term success.

All entrepreneurs have to decide what their role should be in their organization – even if it means that they’re contributing to their “unemployable” status.

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Business Entrepreneur

7 books every entrepreneur should read

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) You’ve heard it said, “do as I say and not as I do.” Read these books from authors who have figured out what works and what doesn’t when starting a business.

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If you’re thinking about leading a startup (or already do), but are not sure where to go, the internet is often the first place we look. Surely, you can find dozens of blogs, articles, stories, and opinionated editorials that can help give you something to think about.

However, there are tons and tons of great books that can help you think about what you need to get started, how you could benefit from changing your mindset, or address challenges you may confront as you begin your entrepreneurial journey. Take a look at the following 7 you may want to add to your bookshelf.

1. The Startup Checklist: 25 Steps to a Scalable, High-Growth Business
This text not only boasts a 5 start rating on Amazon, but offers what few books do – practical, tangible, down to earth advice. Where lots of books try to tell you a story, talk strategy, and share wins, author David Rose instead focuses on advice that assumes no prior experience – and breaks it down from the fundamentals.

2. Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation
Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom focus on creating a lean startup by offering a step-by-step process that focuses on nailing the product, saving time, and saving money. The first step is about testing assumptions about your business, and then adjusting to growing it (hence: Nail It and Scale It). Strong aspects of this book include a great theoretical foundation, and an easy to follow framework.

3. The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls that Can Sink a Startup
Wasserman’s strength here is that he focuses not only on the financial challenges, but identifies the human cost of bad relationships – ultimately how bad decisions at the inception of a start-up set the stage for its downfall. This book is a great tool to proactively avoid future legal challenges down the row, and also discusses the importance of getting it right from the start.

4. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
Horowitz writes about his experiences, taken from his blog, in a way that even inexperienced managers can touch and learn. The advice here really focuses on leading a start-up, and what lessons his experience has given him. Presented in a humorous, honest, and poignantly profane way.

5. The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company
Blank and Dorf here standout due the sheer mass of this text. A comprehensive volume at 573 pages, my favorite piece for new investors is a focus on valued metrics – leveraging data to fuel growth.

6. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
A personal favorite of mine, this book is recommended for entrepreneurs not because it’s focus on business, but as a reminder that those of you wanting to start up are people. You have limited resources to manage as a person, and will need to adjust your perspective on what you care about. This book is about changing your mindset to pick your battles and be more focused.

7. Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup
Bill Aulet starts with an approach that entrepreneurs can be taught, and breaks down the process into 24 steps, highlighting the role of focus, the challenges you may encounter, and the use of innovation. This text wins due to its practicality for new start-ups, and a specific method for creating new ventures. It also features a workbook as an additional, optional resource.

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