How to develop your public speaking skills and advance your career

Speaking about IT leadership in public forums can build your credentials, network, and personal brand. Here's how to get started.


Image: iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Most of us have seen the statistic that many people's greatest fear is public speaking. Standing in front of hundreds of expectant eyes can certainly be nerve-wracking, but it's also a highly effective way to build your personal brand. When commanding the stage, you have an opportunity not only to present your thoughts, but also show your ability to exert executive presence, a key trait for your current or future leadership roles. Counterintuitively, public speaking is the ultimate tool for introverts. An effective presentation favors the well-prepared, objections from the audience are usually minimal, and after a compelling talk you'll have the crowd coming to you rather than uncomfortably working the room.

Speaking also allows you to quickly test new ideas or concepts you're considering in a relatively low-risk environment. While it might be momentarily painful, I'd prefer to get an hour or two of negative feedback about a new approach to my work rather than test that new approach in the field and put my company at risk. (Note: This article about public speaking is available as a free PDF download.)

Finding a venue

We live in a world where it's easier than ever to find opportunities to hone your public speaking skills. Perhaps the easiest place to start is within your own company. If you're not already doing so, perhaps spend the introductory moments of your next town hall-style meeting delivering a prepared talk about the company, your group, or an emerging technology or industry trend. Practice your delivery, how you move around the room, and leverage body language and facial expressions in the low risk environment.

If you're already fully exploiting your home court advantage, most medium- and large-sized cities have various IT-related groups, ranging from groups focused on technology employees, to associations that target IT leaders. Your local IT employee association would likely love to have a leader provide perspective to its members in front of a small and friendly crowd, and also provide conference opportunities that get you to a larger stage and in front of a bigger audience.

Another under-utilized route is your current army of vendors. Most consulting, software, and implementation providers attend or sponsor massive conferences, in the case of larger ones like software maker SAP's SAPPHIRE hosting tens of thousands of attendees. These companies love putting satisfied customers front and center, and will not only provide a venue, but will often help with crafting the presentation materials and share the stage with you, providing you with some company under the spotlight. Even if you don't feel ready for the main stage, most of these conferences have opportunities for everything from panel discussions to joint presentations during more intimate breakout sessions.

Creating your content

Once you've found a venue, the next challenge is creating your content. This is where most new speakers make a critical error, jumping immediately into slides that share information rather than spending time considering what message they want the audience to walk away with. Before creating a single slide, ask yourself what two or three points you want the audience to remember after you talk. Think about what stories you might tell a friend that would convey those points, using a conversational tone and storytelling techniques. Most audiences would rather hear a good story that presents one or two points, than a highly-technical lecture that packs volumes of information into a dry and forgettable format. Like a good story, your speech should have a beginning, some conflict or challenge, a resolution, and perhaps a discrete call to action.

Delivering your talk

The best advice I ever received about public speaking was to always remember that the audience wants you to succeed. No one takes the time out of their lives to sit through a speech with the hope that the speaker will fail miserably, and waste their time. The moment you walk on stage you have a room full of adoring fans, even if they've never set eyes upon you before.

There are hundreds of tips on how to use the stage and the various mechanics of delivering a speech. Rather than attempting to remember every single nuance, find a couple that you feel can work for you, and use them next time you give a talk. You might focus on smiling and looking like you're enjoying yourself, or making eye contact with the crowd, or moving around rather than hiding behind the podium. Aim to succeed at using a couple of techniques rather than increasing your nervousness by attempting to follow every supposed rule of public speaking.

SEE: Overcome the challenges of public speaking: Tips for tech professionals (TechRepublic)

If you're struggling for inspiration, watch a popular TED Talk or well-regarded speaker on YouTube. Notice how they use pauses, movement, and changes in tone to keep the delivery interesting, and relate the content to the audience at a personal level rather than some cerebral, academic style. I tend to shoot for brevity rather than trying to pack in every point I'd ever wanted to make; again, your audience will probably walk away happier with a short, well-delivered single point than a rambling dissertation.

Speaking and brand building

If you can speak effectively, you'll quickly find you're being asked to deliver more talks to larger audiences, gaining exposure to an increasingly diverse network. Like any personal brand building exercise, this growing professional network will provide you with career opportunities that might range from more speaking requests, to publishing opportunities, to career opportunities. As with all brand building, done well you'll soon create a virtual cycle where interesting people and opportunities actively seek you out rather than your hunting for them.

Also see

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...