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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

Amy’s Ice Cream – a front for spawning entrepreneurs?

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) Why would an ice cream shop bother with “30 hours of non-ice cream training” in personal finance and give teens and young adults access to a 401k program?

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Scooping ice cream is a classic summer job for the cash-strapped teenager, but for employees of Austin-area favorite Amy’s Ice Cream, it could lead to a lifetime of financial literacy, or even eventual entrepreneurship.

Founder Amy Simmons half-jokingly describes her namesake dessert franchise as “a front for educating primarily young people in business, and finance, and decision making, and problem solving so they can go out in the world and be really successful themselves.” Amy’s employees receive “30 hours of non-ice cream training” in personal finance, and even have access to a remarkably popular 401k program.

Simmons credits her business philosophy to a book by one Jack Stack of Missouri, entitled The Great Game of Business. Its tagline reads, “Teaching employees to think and act like owners,” and the ice cream entrepreneur is now extending the practice of “open book management” to companies across the country through Amy’s EDU, a consulting company cofounded by Simmons, Aaron Clay, and Mark Banks.

Open book management “empowers all employees to know, understand, and ultimately run the business.”Click To Tweet

“It’s a path and it’s a way of looking at your company so that you really engage your customers as partners… your stake holders as partners,” says Simmons.

Amy’s EDU also offers courses and seminars in customer service, leadership, public speaking, and company culture, but the primary objective of each track is the same: get employees and customers involved in the business, excited about what they’re doing, and educated enough to contribute something new.

Take note, CEOs and leaders: Amy’s Ice Cream is a highly successful company with impressive longevity – it was founded in 1984, and now boasts 14 locations, including 12 in Austin.

What Amy’s advocates for, others should imitate.Click To Tweet

And imitation does not necessarily mean adopting every single tenet of the Amy’s EDU syllabus, imitation means embracing the ethos of educating your employees on the company they’re devoting time and energy to.

It means giving your employees knowledge, and then giving them some freedom to use that knowledge for the benefit of your company.

It means recognizing that employee success and company success go together like hot fudge and vanilla ice cream, and that the teenager serving your sundae could, and maybe should, one day be founding an enterprise of their own.

This story was first published in February 2017.

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Business Entrepreneur

Business advice from Babe Ruth that all leaders should mind

(OPINION) Leadership comes from years of refining your practice, and great leadership comes dedication and focus, but Babe Ruth would add more to that…

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All good leaders pull from a variety of inspirational sources to create their formula for success, even from unlikely sources like an overweight baseball legend. Babe Ruth was a winner in his day without steroids and without the paparazzi and while he wasn’t a business leader, he hustled every day to be the best.

Today, we share with you a quote from Babe Ruth that all leaders should mind when operating business because this simple concept is one of the hardest to remember. “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games,” Babe Ruth said. Let that settle in. Are you resting your laurels on yesterday’s home runs?

Are you puffing your chest because last year’s sales were high or because your net worth was higher in 2008 than anyone else’s in your circle or because you won a prestigious award in 2007?

It’s very common to consider past accomplishments as part of your identity, there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes relying on yesterday’s home runs stunts a leader’s intellectual growth – once you think you’re at the top of your game, sure you keep working, but are you really focused on today’s game?

The cliche of keep your eye on the ball would also be relevant here, because if you’re in the outfield dreaming about last week’s home run, you’re not in the game today with everyone else.

What steps are you taking to focus on today’s game? Maybe the image below should be your desktop or smartphone wallpaper as a reminder to focus?

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Business Entrepreneur

Transitioning from corporate life to freelance life

(ENTREPRENEUR) A look at what it takes to pivot your career from corporate cubicles to your couch at home.

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Freelancing is rad. I’ve gone into some depth on why I think that’s the case and even provided some thoughts and resources for my rush hour and necktie-averse kin.

Freelancing is also challenging, in many ways more so than office work. I’ve transitioned between the two, both ways, and while I’ve landed on the liberating, self-motivated (but insecure, complicated and confusing) freelance side rather than the dull, workaday cube farm side (with it benefits, job security and human interaction) I can obviously see arguments for both.

Here’s what I wish I’d known before I set out to navigate the minefield between corporate and freelance work. With any luck, it should help you do the same without hearing a click and having to offer a sad and final “oops.”

Have a plan.

This is where going corporate to freelance starts to differ from vice versa. Choosing a new corporate employer takes hard goals, but also flexibility: an ex-freelancer has to learn to accommodate other people’s plans, on account of, you know, working with other people now.

Entering the freelance world requires the opposite.

You don’t just need goals. You need a schedule.

You need deliverables, you need a budget, you need Plans B-Z inclusive for when you come in over or under, because you will.

In short, you need a boss in your head.

It is the best boss you’ll ever have: that cat (feel free to imagine it as an actual cat in a business suit; I certainly do) doesn’t care if you party til 2am on a Wednesday, or skive off for three hours in the middle of the day to catch “Fate of the Furious” at matinee prices. All your new boss cares about is hitting the numbers.

Have numbers. Hit them.

Go slowly.

This is the one that everyone screws up, by which I mean that I did. It is so tempting to stick your boss’ tie in the shredder, shot put your least favorite appliance out the window and burn a sweet donut in the parking lot before you drive off to your freelancer future. Every office drone’s dream, right?

Don’t do it. Do not.

On my last day before I went freelance, I wore a Metallica tee and sweats to my shirt-and-tie day job. Joked with my cube buddy, what were they gonna do, fire me?

Thing is? That was the first time I went freelance.

As you’ll recall from the intro, I’ve done that twice. Thankfully, when I did have to return to the realm of gridlock and beige, I was in a different time zone. But the whole reason I had to return to the corporate world in the first place was summed up in that I didn’t prepare. I did the dream, cut loose, and burned the bridges behind me. Unwise.

It’s standard wisdom that you should build up savings before starting a business. Real talk: for an awful lot of people, that’s fantasy. Even in my coziest corporate days, north of the 50th percentile, between rent and urban cost of living my only shot at meaningful savings was retailing organs.

Keep your kidneys. Instead, bank your time.

I’m a writer. You may have noticed. Most of my day jobs involved that skill. If you think every character I typed into Word in my cube days was corporate-approved, as opposed to projects or practice for my freelance adventures, there’s this great bridge I’d like to sell you.

So for the first few months, keep your day job and build your skills.

Take small projects on your own time, buoyed with that glorious cushion of salary.

Train your brains out. You may even be able to do that at work: plenty of employers, especially in fields like tech and medicine that a) value certification b) translate nicely to freelancing, will shell out to train you up. Wade into the shallow end while you’ve still got a roof and a health plan. It’s vital experience, but more importantly, it’s how you figure out freelance IT or consulting or Etsying artisanal dog sweaters is actually how you want to spend 80 hours a week.

Keep a schedule.

Wait. 80 hours? Fraid so, at least early on. It will take serious legwork to get those artisanal dog sweaters off the ground. No client list means permanent hustle. No infrastructure means weeks on end of pure trial and error, figuring out what works. No employees means every last bit of it is on you.

That’s not what I mean by scheduling. You have a job, and, being an American Genius reader, are by definition intelligent and insightful, not to mention good-looking and possessed of impeccable taste. We don’t let just anybody around here. You know you’ll need that stuff.

When you freelance, you need to schedule life.

That boss in your head? Still your boss, which is to say a sociopath who can and will take every minute you’re willing to offer. For better or worse, an office job does work-life balance for you: come in then, leave now, this is due whenever. The nastiest trap in entering freelance work, the last, biggest boom in the minefield, is that it can swallow you whole. If you let it, it will take over your life, and it’s better at that than the cube, because it’s something you want to do.

Integrate both ways.

So, not every day but now and again, put down your dog sweaters and catch Vin Diesel. See a concert on a weekday. Spend a whole evening playing with your kid.

Whatever you like, with a single rule: no work allowed.

Freelancing means your job is much more thoroughly integrated into your life.Click To Tweet

Make sure your life is integrated into your job.

And that, my friend, is how you transition from drone life to freelance life.

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