I was really excited to hear the speaker. She’s a well-known TV network correspondent whom I’ve watched for years. She’s thought-provoking and witty and quickly cuts to the chase. So when I changed my flight to get to the conference in time to hear her speak, imagine my disappointment when she blew it. Actually, I was more disappointed that she had no clue that she blew it.
Here she was—a media celebrity in a ballroom of seasoned communications professionals—but she had not stopped to consider her audience and what they cared about. Yes, she told a few stories about life in the news trenches, but the stories were all about her. How great she was. The obstacles she had to overcome. The tough decisions she makes every day. Me, me, me and more me.
What she failed to do was help her audience understand how they could use this information. What lessons did she learn that her listeners could apply to their lives? How could her vignettes empower, motivate or inspire others to act? Most importantly, how could they benefit from her expertise and apply it to their business so they could make a difference for others?
Just because you are a public figure or an expert in your field doesn’t mean you can wow an audience. Public speaking is an art; for some it is a profession. No matter how many years you’ve been speaking or how many people tell you how fabulous you are, you’re not. Like a star athlete or sought-after entertainer, you can never stop practicing your craft if you want to be the best you can be.
Learn as much as you can about your audience so you can tailor your remarks to them and help them improve. What do they want to learn from you? In this case, was it how to get more coverage, pitch a story or perhaps build relationships with the media?
Don’t talk about yourself. Share successes, failures and experiences to help others apply lessons learned to their own lives. For example, I recently heard a speaker talk about her 11-year-old daughter being diagnosed with cancer a week after her father died. As sad as her story was, she wanted to share it to help others cope when life happens and the world as they know it seems to crumble around them.
Get over yourself. They already like you, which is why they came to hear you. In this case, the speaker told everyone that if they wanted their story told on her program, the only decision-maker at the network who really mattered was her. Seriously? Arrogance is not becoming on anyone.
At this point, I know you are wondering who I’m talking about. I won’t tell you but will offer a clue. I turned on CNN the other day and she happened to pop up. As I was about to change the channel, the interview caught my attention. It was a meaty conversation and admirably, she didn’t let her subject off the hook. As a former reporter, I was impressed. Then, bam! She blew it. In the middle of an intense conversation about presidential politics, she started talking about herself, her family and her personal beliefs. Who cares? Your job as a communicator is to provoke thought and facilitate understanding. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your experiences as long as your audience can apply lessons learned to their own lives.
However, if you simply want people to tell you you’re wonderful, or you’re delivering lines in hopes of applause, you’re there for you and not for them. If that’s the case, you’ll blow it every time and likely have no clue that you did.
Karen Friedman is an executive communication coach, professional speaker and author. This is an excerpt from her new book Ordinary People: Extraordinary Lessons/Leadership Insights from Everyday Encounters. She is an award-winning former television news reporter and a syndicated columnist for the Philadelphia Business Journal. She teaches leadership communications for executive women at Smith College.