Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Most Important Class I Ever Took

Last week my CEO asked me to take his place and present at an investor conference. This was an excellent opportunity for me to stand in front of a large and influential audience and pitch my company to them. In the audience were senior investment bankers, venture capitalists, CEOs and, of course, my own company's board of directors members. It was one of those high stakes moments where you get a great deal of exposure and you have the chance to make an impression, good or bad, on many people who can influence the direction of your career.

I nailed it.

And... this take me back to the most important class I ever took: public speaking.

I was born and raised in Israel, where I also served in the military for 3 years. In my third year I served as an Air Force instructor, and to earn that privilege I had to pass a teaching class. This short, three week course, changed my life. For three weeks I was taught how to stand in front of an audience and communicate a message. I spoke, and my instructors and fellow students pointedly critiqued my performance. The first few times were unnerving. The stress of standing in front of an audience, some of which were instructed to intentionally throw off my pace, was something that I never had to face before. However, after three weeks of trial by fire, I mastered the techniques and my confidence and performance were much improved.

Almost twenty years later, I still use these same techniques. Speak slowly. Make eye contact. Move around. Modulate your voice. Use your hands for emphasis. Tell a story. Connect with the audience.

Public speaking is a skill in which very few of us receive formal training, but which is truly indispensable for one's career. While I didn't know it at the time, that three week teaching class continues to do wonders for my career decades later.

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Kim Stiens said...

I agree! Taking speech and debate in college has been one of the most useful things I've ever done. It should be required to get a liberal arts degree!

Rob Bennett said...

I also agree.

Lots of people fear public speaking. That tells me that it matters to them. If those who feared it overcame their fears (it can be done -- the trick is to practice until you sound good even to your overly critical self), they would love connecting with an audience and just get better and better.

Being able to speak well helps in learning how to write well. It's all about connecting with people. Public speaking is a form of intimacy in which you don't run the risk of catching a disease!


Shadox said...

Always the poet, Rob... :-)

Anonymous said...

I do consider it as a key skill as well. I currently work for an unfunded start-up and do spent about half my time speaking at such investment conferences, filling in for the CEO.

The problem I've found is that there appears to be a disconnect between what we (working for startups) find valuable and what other employers think.

Typically a large firm could care less that you've spoken at investment conferences as you would only be doing public speaking at that level if you were one of the higher-up big shots. I think that they sometimes see such activities as a distraction and 'prefer' that you focus on your narrowly defined role.

It's not necessarily easier at a startup that always has a CEO and his right-hand man who both enjoy such activities. I don't think either of them want us "stealing their thunder."

In your opinion, short of starting our own venture, how do we monetize such public speaking skills?

Parag said...

Speaking publicly is all about connecting to the audience. The language should be simple yet very effective. People must understand what you speak and what you communicate.

Parag said...

Speaking publicly is all about connecting to the audience. The language should be simple yet very effective. People must understand what you speak and what you communicate.
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