Speak like a leader: 15 secrets to engage any audience

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post on delivering a seemingly effortless talk also incorporates select insights from Executive Speaking Success’ John Bates.

Public speaking is the original human communication method. Long before newspapers, TV or social media, everything important was communicated through speaking in front of others. Regardless of industry, your level in the organisation or the size or nature of audience, it’s still the most effective method for influencing human beings. However, today you’re in competition for people’s attention with the best speakers in the corporation and across the planet.

Turbocharge your influence 

By using some simple principles you can vault into the top speaker set in your company and beyond, and dramatically turbocharge your influence, presence, memorability and business outcomes. Strong speaking skills will propel your career. They’ll distinguish you from the majority who may be very good at what they do but unable to rally others behind it. Effective speaking skills strengthen every aspect of leadership, from hosting successful meetings, influencing decisions, activating your team, rallying employees behind strategic priorities, to engaging external stakeholders and connecting customers with your products.

But first things first: As a speaker, you’re not just that. You’re a performer. Speaking in any capacity gives you a platform of influence. You’re in a position to change lives. It’s a privilege and an opportunity not to waste. Therefore, you should bring your best self to every single performance. The audience, large or small, is starving for your greatness. If you master the following principles, you’ll fascinate listeners and dramatically increase their willingness to engage.

What’s your idea worth spreading?

Remember TED talks? They’re popular for many reasons. One of the biggest is they are always short and focus on one central idea “worth spreading”. Not two or three. Just one.

To capture – and keep – attention in a world of constant distraction, the best speakers apply the same principle: align your keynote, interview or presentation with one key theme that runs through like a red-thread. When asked about other aspects, answer briefly, then with stoic discipline return to the main thread. While developing that discipline to stick to just one idea is critical, the actual idea often is not. Don’t get hung up on finding the perfect idea to talk about. You likely have more than one; the right one is the one you pick! Select one and dedicate your talk to it. Keep other great content for next time. If you overfreight the audience with competing ideas, they’ll not hear the one that counts, let alone act upon it.

Once you’ve decided on a central theme, you need to curate content. Make a brain dump of all points, facts, stories, examples that underpin your idea. A great way to do this is mind mapping or sticky notes; one thought per note, so that it’s easy to cluster and prioritise the best points and decide the order in which to share them. Make the flow logical, but not predictable.

“As a speaker, you’re not just that. You’re a performer. Speaking in any capacity gives you a platform of influence”

Now, create an outline, or write out your speech word for word. This is a matter of personal preference and how you best internalise content, language, puns. I do it both ways depending on topic, opportunity, type of audience and how much time I have till delivery. If you phrase it out, be sure it’s written like you actually speak, not like a PR department’s script.

Next, marinate in your draft, review and edit, whittle it down and sharpen your points. Don’t time it yet. Just make sure it becomes focused. Once you have it where you want it’s best to turn it into an outline and practice from that, so you don’t sound like a machine.

Start strong, end memorable

The first impression counts. Almost instantly, people decide whether or not to like you, trust your expertise, and what’s in it for them if they listen to you. Start strong. Start funny. Start vulnerable. Create an emotional connection with the audience. Don’t present yourself as a superhero, instead tell them an origin story. They want to know what connects you to the subject, why you care – so that they can care, too.

Forget establishing your credibility. You’re already on stage speaking! Your competence is assumed or you wouldn’t be there. Trying to establish credibility on top of that will create the opposite effect: it’ll tarnish your credibility. What’s important though is to establish emotional credibility. The way our human brain is wired, its ancient part – the paleomammalian complex, or limbic system – makes actual decisions. It determines our actions and is deeply rooted in things we tend to not consciously notice like smells, patterns, pheromones, facial micro gestures and more.

“Create an emotional connection with the audience. Don’t present yourself as a superhero, instead tell them an origin story”

Most people think we make logical decisions. Wrong. Studies show that in making decisions, the limbic system fires first, with the ‘logical’ neocortex immediately following, agreeing or disagreeing but not making the decision. Therefore, we must make an emotional connection first; or your logic and all facts that follow will simply bounce off.

While the first impression counts, the last impression lasts. End your talk on a compelling call to action. That’s what your audience will remember best. Make sure they walk away with a clear understanding of your idea and why it’s important for them to get behind it. Tell them what action to take and how to take it.

Don’t tell them everything

As the subject matter expert, you know a great deal about your topic. Guess what? People don’t want to become an expert on the same level. They just want the treats. They want to learn enough to be able to follow your logic. Don’t get into the weeds. If a question takes you there, answer it and get back to the big picture. Help them understand what’s key. Your ability to answer questions in great detail is helpful in a Q&A session, but it dramatically decreases your effectiveness when you’re presenting.

It’s really easy to make something complicated even more complicated. The art of great communication is making something complex simple and easily understood.

Tell a story

For thousands of years, humans have been passing on knowledge through stories. From generation to generation, these stories would stay intact and help our ancestors conserve and expand intelligence. A great story can be ingested and recalled by the person who received it. It can instil value, purpose and belief. It can change behaviour and achieve action. Humanity managed to survive through stories. So it makes sense that our brains would value a memorable story more than any other communications technique. Therefore, to make an important point stick, deliver it with a fitting story.

In most schools and professions, we’ve been told to not rely on anecdotal evidence but real facts. That’s good advice and we need facts to underpin our case. However, if trying to pass on great data or factual points without the assistance of tangible emotion, we’re missing out on the number one tool of effective communication. For the human brain, emotions are relatable. Data are forgettable.

“A great story can be ingested and recalled by the person who received it. It can instil value, purpose and belief”

There are techniques to make your storytelling irresistible. A powerful one is to begin the narrative right in the middle of the plot (in medias res in classical latin) without a long build or superfluous exposition risking people’s attention, to then fill in essential background and context later.

Another technique to glue people to their seats is to tell your story in present tense. Diabolically difficult at first, this becomes a lot easier quickly with practice. It’ll pull the entire room into your plot, right here and now. These two techniques combined stand a high chance of making recipients read from your lips. No one will check email.

When you’re up there 

Among heaps of well-meant advice going through countless training and feedback loops myself, I found these most helpful:

When you’re “on” in front of an audience, use natural gestures that flow with your talk. If you’re an animated character, don’t force yourself to plant your feet in the exact same spot motionless for 20 minutes, cramping your fingers into each other in front of your belly, just because a coach advised so. If you prefer standing still so that your movements don’t distract from your talk, do so. Otherwise, I find it engaging and, frankly, trust-building when speakers show authentic dynamics that fits their personality. For instance, changing position to mark a transition in your story can dramatically captivate the congregation – unless it becomes overdone especially for the show.

At minimum, use your hands as you talk. People need to see your hands all the time. If you hide them behind your back or in your pockets, people subconsciously check out. They’re worried what you’re doing with your hands. It’ll kill your message.

If ever you need to turn around, for example to point at a slide behind you or write something on a flip chart, use what I call my Touch, Turn, Talk rule: “touch” whatever you need to do with your back to the auditorium, then turn fully to face them again, to only then continue your talk. Never speak with your back to the audience. It’s impolite and means people will not hear you clearly. It distracts and disrupts.

“Slow speakers, especially those using powerful pauses, are typically rated as experts who enjoy high levels of trust and authority”

The audience is made up of individuals. Talk to them as if you’re in a serial one-on-one conversation. A huge part of that is eye contact. Pick a friendly face, make eye contact, deliver a thought, then slide your gaze to the next 1:1 conversation in the room, and so forth. Make sure to cover the various parts of the room as you do this.

By the way, I always arrive early during a break to connect with a few individuals ahead of my talk. Introduce yourself, ask them how the event has been going so far, mingle. It’s extraordinary how these same individuals will typically smile at you once you’re up on stage, encouragingly nodding along when you look at them. I take a lot of energy and encouragement from these “allies” to give them my absolute best performance.

Lastly, as much as I clear out my head of anything unrelated to my topic as I enter the lion’s den, there are three things to bear in mind: Don’t forget to smile. Your unconscious facial expressions reveal a great deal about your comfort. The audience quickly picks up and interprets whether you’re confident, nervous or on the brink of freaking out. A relaxed expression and occasional smile can mitigate in your favour, and keeps your nerves in check, too. Secondly, don’t forget to breathe. An occasional pause to take a deep, conscious breath can accentuate key points of your talk and supplies your stressed brain with fresh oxygen, which allows it to stay calm and think straight. Thirdly, keep control of talking speed. Fast speakers are rated as not knowing their subject, little trustworthy and low in acumen. While slow speakers, especially those using powerful pauses, are typically rated as experts who enjoy high levels of trust and authority.

Make time to do it right

Most of my corporate life, when I had months to prepare for a major event I would procrastinate and prioritise more imminent work until late in the process. While in reality it takes time, prep and practice to live up to your true potential and deliver a compelling speech.

As accomplished TED-format speaker coach John Bates keeps reminding me: talks consume human life. One person speaking for 20 minutes to 3,000 people uses up 60,000 minutes or 1,000 hours of human life. If you want your talk to be well received and the audience to act upon it, you owe it to them to dedicate some of your own time up front.

If you have three months to prepare a major speech, finalise your script within the first two weeks. Then you have 2.5 months to live with, rehearse, polish and refine it. Not only will this process make your final delivery sharp and relevant, you will ooze expertise and emotional connectivity with your subject, and that will rub off to anyone watching you.

The strongest 5 minutes ever

Do practice out aloud. All great speakers delivering seemingly effortless talks do, including world-stage politicians, show hosts and certainly every business leader I worked with. Hardly anything happens off the cuff; great anecdotes, surprising twists, disarming revelations usually result from condensing through practice. Steve Jobs for instance was known for using a formula: After crafting his speech, he would practice one hour for every minute of his talk. A 45-minute speech would get 45 hours of rehearsal time. No wonder people called him a natural communicator.

Ringfence time in your schedule so that rehearsing doesn’t fall victim to other priorities. Practice in front of a mirror. Step into the audience’s shoes by recording and watching yourself – discreetly with your laptop camera or mobile device. Ask a respected colleague or family member to watch and critique. Incorporate relevant insights, yet make sure to be judicious. Everyone wants to be helpful, but it’s your speech and you’re the expert, so not all suggestions will equally improve your talk.

Finally: For crucial pitches with a lot at stake, enlist professional support to help perfect delivery. If you get five minutes to convince a board, investors or customer community on a major stage, you better make sure these become the strongest five minutes of your career!

  • Align your talk with one key idea worth spreading
  • Curate rich content and create an outline
  • Marinate in your draft, whittle down, sharpen
  • Start strong, end on a memorable call to action
  • Establish emotional credibility fast
  • Don’t tell them everything, give them the treats
  • To make a point stick, tell a story
  • Jump right into the middle of the plot (in medias res)
  • Tell your story in present tense
  • Obey the Touch, Turn, Talk rule
  • Make eye contact and cover the room
  • Arrive early to connect with individuals
  • Don’t forget to smile, don’t forget to breathe, don’t rush
  • Take time to practice, refine and naturalise your speech
  • Deliver the strongest 5 minutes of your career – each time!

About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.

John-Alfred Kohler Bates is one of the most prolific TED-format speaker trainers in the world. He works with global corporations and multinational organisations, coaching industry leaders to excel on stage and speakers for over 35 TEDx events to date.

This post incorporates select insights from TED-format public speaking coach and CEO of Executive Speaking Success John Bates, with whom Oliver collaborates, to enhance corporate leadership and speaker impact.