A key component of being a good leader is being able to speak to the team in a way that is engaging, informative, and motivating. Certainly, understanding the objectives, marshaling the resources, making good, timely decisions, and getting the job done are important aspects of leadership. But I was reminded yesterday how absolutely vital it is for leaders to be able to, often spontaneously, get up in front of the group and communicate effectively. This is far more difficult for some than others.
I’ve seen more than a few people who were technically competent, even brilliant, with deep understanding of the goals and how to accomplish them who simply fell apart when required to speak to the group. Most of them weren’t frightened by the challenge of public speaking, they were often even arrogant because they had such overwhelming command of the issues. No, they were just lousy at it.
And, as anyone skilled in public speaking will tell you, a major part of being a good speaker is knowing your audience and making sure you are talking about issues they care about, in ways they can understand. This is important not only for your preparations, in deciding what to say and how to say it, but even more importantly during the talk.
It is crucial that you pay close attention to more than just your talk, but also to your audience. You need to constantly ensure that you are engaging them, that they are understanding you, and that they are taking the journey along with you. This takes practice, and from what I can tell, it’s a skill not everyone has.
There was a continuing skit on NBC’s Saturday Night Live about a woman (played by Rachael Dratch) who had no “gaydar” — she couldn’t identify stereotypical gay men and flirted with them fruitlessly [oops, really bad pun].
Many people have a similar problem with public speaking, a problem I call having no “saydar”. They can’t say anything while also respecting their audience. And there are many flavors of this malady.
Some are so frightened that they simply want to make it through this horrible experience. They have shut out all thoughts that there might be people listening and they become the “little engine that could” of public speaking: “I think I can, I think I can…”
Others are so enraptured with the sound of their own voice that they are oblivious to all other input. You can even see them sometimes close their eyes and talk as if a singer lost deep in a ballad. “Don’t bother me while I pontificate.”
Still others ignore the obvious signs that they are losing their audience and press on regardless. It seems that nothing less than an “Animal House” level food fight would disrupt them from their mission of getting through the material. “I’m going to say this, and you’re going to listen, dang it.”
They all share the same problem: they aren’t paying attention to the target. They just aren’t watching the audience to see if people are restless, bored, distracted, or following the material. It’s really not that hard, and if you can manage to pick out several in the audience you know you are connecting with, it can even make speaking a lot of fun. But it does take effort, and more than a little selflessness.
So, I ask you: how good is your saydar?