How to Speak Like a Leader in 2023 – and beyond

How to Speak Like a Leader in 2023 – and beyond

It’s the New Year, and you’re determined to “bring it.” 

I’m with you. Let’s do this thing!

For many of us, a big part of advancing our career goals in 2023 will have to do with how effectively we deliver presentations – live and in person – following the morose, lockdown, virtually all virtual years of 2020-22.

Zoom, Teams, and Google Meets have their place, but let’s be real, there’s no substitute for face-to-face, in the flesh, human interaction. We crave it. We need it. And we can make a big impact with it.

A lot of us, though, are thoroughly out of practice engaging others while not wearing our pajama bottoms. So, consider the following 10 tips a timely refresher after the interminable Debbie and Donnie Downer years.

Adhere to them, and you’ll soon be speaking like the leader you are.

1. Prepare, and then prepare some more.

Learn your story. Cold.

That doesn’t mean memorize it (which can exert undue pressure on you), but know it. Make it your own. If you can, love it.

There’s an old saying in the presentation skills world: “When you know your story cold, it frees you to be yourself.” And that’s the most powerful element of all.

2. Organize your story simply.

It absolutely baffles me why people make their presentations so complex. Perhaps they believe it makes them look smarter. In fact, they come across as bureaucratic and middling, not at all like leaders.

Use the time-tested ‘Power of Three’ to organize your material under the categories of Introduction (context), Body (three main points), and Conclusion (call to action.)

This stuff is really simple. Believe me, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t teach it.

3. Make things easier on yourself.

Addressing others is all about taking the pressure off yourself, so you can be yourself.

(There’s that “be yourself” component again.) 

I don’t eat within an hour of a gig, because I really don’t want to worry about indigestion, or food stuck in my teeth. (I once ate a bag of chips right before a panel discussion, but that’s another story.)

Reduce your caffeine intake beforehand to minimize the jitters, and be aware that dairy products can produce mucus and cause your voice to “thicken.” Not pleasant.

4. Bring energy.

Decide early on that you’re going to “own” your speaking opportunity.

Dress the part. When you’re selling, you dress up. When you’re buying, you dress down. You’re selling.

Slipper time is over.

Smile confidently as you enter the room where you’ll be doing your thing. Leave any and all negativity behind. You may have been cut off in traffic 20 minutes earlier, or had to wait an extra 30 seconds for your double latte, but these are First World problems that I’m confident you can overcome.

Besides: No. One. Cares.

A negative statement has three times the staying power of a positive one, so speak positively, unless you’re required to take on a negative issue.

Arrive with a hard copy version of your presentation in a three-ring binder. You can speak from it, and if your technology goes down, it will save you. If something does go awry, be cool. Don’t display even a hint of irritation. Your listeners will be watching carefully to see how you handle adversity. 

5. Start slowly.

Most people speak between 120 and 170 words per minute. The average is 150.

Great orators often have sections when they’re well under 100.

Go slowly for the first minute or so of your remarks – it will relieve some pressure, you’ll be less likely to flub, and you’ll sound confident and self-assured. 

Amateurs start quickly, and then slow down. Professionals start slowly, and then speed up when their content requires it.

A good way to get rolling is to tell a story that relates to your subject matter, or to recognize a respected audience member who’s had a significant accomplishment. 

The more power you give away, the more power comes back to you. It’s an immutable law of the universe, like the one decreeing that goods and services are always more expensive in Canada.

6. Go easy on the technology. 

The best speakers in the world don’t require technology to inspire their audiences.

However, if you must use slides, go with as few as possible – no more than one slide per minute of speaking time, and certainly no more than three points per slide.

(If you have to cover comprehensive data, consider a simplified presentation version, and a more detailed handout.)

Open and close your presentation with a near-identical title slide (contact information on the final slide), providing a nice sense of symmetry. Audiences like that. 

In the name of all that is holy, please don’t have a “Thank you” slide. Really, it’s straight out of elementary school. Remember, you can thank your audience in person. 

Video is great, but only if it’s short, and helps you tell your story, not be the story. Test your technology frequently, and then test it again. If it fails during show time, ditch it, and speak confidently without it. Like a leader. 

7. Speak definitively. 

Use strong, certain language, and deliver it with respect and humility. Avoid those weak,  equivocating and immensely irritating phrases “sort of,” “kind of,” and by far the most maddening, “like.”

Example: “Like, I totaled the van.”

Too many speakers inflect up at the end of their sentences, producing a grating sing song delivery that makes them sound timid and indecisive, and makes their listeners wish they were in a different and better place – like at Pearson, waiting for luggage.

8. Issue a clear call to action. 

Too many presentations simply drop off a cliff at the end – you want yours to conclude with clarity and resolution. Especially in a pitch, you need to wrap up with a definitive call to action, or “ask.” 

What is it you want your listeners to do with the information you’ve just disseminated? You need to tell them.

9. Aim to be good, not perfect.

If you’re aiming for perfection in a presentation and you flub, your brain will predictably tell you that you’ve failed. It can be all downhill after that.

Don’t say “sorry” when you flub. There’s no need to. Just calmly correct yourself, and move on. No one will care. Forget about perfection. Serve the interests of your audience, and you’ll be fine.

10. Keep getting better.

Have your presentation recorded. View it when you’re rested, in a good frame of mind.

You’ll see stuff you like, and some you won’t. That’s okay. That’s natural. That’s the process.

Over time, you’ll build on your strengths, and eliminate your weaknesses.

Great speakers are made, not born.

Before long, you’ll be punching it out like Obama.

It’s 2023, and we’re back in the mix!

Have fun out there, speaking like a leader.

Jim Gray is a Senior Communications Advisor in Oakville, Ontario.

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