Cool and Calm is a Leadership Skill

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They say that public speaking is the #1 fear of most people, but I’ll submit that as a business leader who is required to speak to a team or large group, it’s just something that you need to deal with effectively. Here are some observations to help you develop your leadership skills in this area.

A few weeks ago, I contemplated Stan Kroenke, the enigmatic owner of such teams as the Colorado Avalanche, LA Rams, Denver Nuggets, and even Arsenal (the English Premier League), among several other sports teams.

I googled and found very little on Stan. He never wrote a book downloading his business wisdom and doesn’t do many interviews. YouTube came up very dry. Most of the interviews and podcasts he’s on are critical of him as an owner and person, but you can’t argue with his success. In my web searches, I found a YouTube interview that his son Josh sat down for while he was in London as the Arsenal Club Director, and it struck me how calm and matter-of-fact this man was. I’ve seen a few industry interviews by some of our big hitters, and it struck me that this calming cadence is used by design and suggests a strategic mind and the ability to appear to have high emotional intelligence. It conveys a sense of control and near regality that lets the people watching know that the person talking knows what he’s doing and is in charge. Now that’s some leadership skills! Call it hyper-awareness, feeling the need to chart your own path, or understanding that the old ways of command and control organizations are no longer de rigueur, and these next-generation leaders have found a method of communication that resonates with their audience.

A few things I’ve noticed about people whose main job is not to be in the spotlight but appear to be polished when speaking to groups are:

Show up with a plan. They seem prepared to start their talk with a hook that leads into a bullet point. No one wants to just get into it. As Americans, we like a little small talk before we’re hit with the reason we’re here. Serve an appetizer of something tasty most people want to be exposed to, and then get started on the main course. The early and often “eye smile” is a great gambit to win over the customer. Smiling without your eyes is a smirk, and no one likes a smirker.

Bullet list what you know you need to cover. If I had a nickel for every time my hour was up and I didn’t get to half of what I wanted to say, I’d have a lot of nickels. Most of those talks still go very well, and people tell me they enjoyed the time, but I feel like I missed the opportunity to teach what I needed to cover. You are there for a reason, but you have to get across what you showed up to talk about.

Holding attention is most important. I once sat through a two-hour presentation on carb compliance during one furniture market that was so bad that no simile exists in our language that could do justice to how bad it was. The compliance guys in the room were riveted, but our licensees were on the verge of a revolt. I would rather teach less and try to get my main point across more colorfully. It can be a delicate dance, but know your audience and don’t lose them.

The only stupid question is the one not asked. If you present long enough, someone will ask a question you already answered or ask a poorly thought-out question. The goal is to communicate effectively and not demean or belittle, which isn’t easy. It happens to me more times than I care to admit, but in the spirit of being vulnerable, that’s my fault. If the whole class fails a test, is that the fault of the students or the teacher? My job is to expose my audience to my way of thinking and to convince them I’m on to something. If I haven’t done that, I failed and need to rethink how I’m presenting.

Be cool. Be relaxed and calm. If you’re asked a question to which you don’t have an answer, answer it the best you can, or let them know you’ll find out the answer. Josh Kroenke was asked if he played soccer when he was younger and who he modeled his game after. He had no idea what to say, and the interviewer knew it, but Josh got out of that spot with a smile and not a bead of sweat on his face. Respect.

Cadence. In leadership, the nuances of speech are sometimes in the ears of the listener, and there can be a fine line between preachy and passion. No one likes to be screamed at like Mussolini from the balcony, but entrepreneur, speaker, and author, Gary Vaynerchuk (a.k.a. Gary Vee) has a great way of getting people to feel his emotion while he’s on stage. He’s a passionate celebrity business guy that oozes sincerity. Since everyone knows Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban and Robert Herjavec do a great job with their matter-of-fact demeanor, I find Mr. Wonderful, Barbara Corcoran, and Lori Greiner unflappable and difficult to like.

The non-verbals matter. Take a look at yourself in the mirror and practice your intro. Record yourself on your phone to practice to see how you come across in your leadership role. Step one is not to blink, rock back and forth or speak with your hands too much. Step two is to minimize the “ums and uhs.” The black belts of leadership don’t stammer; even if they lose their place, you’ll never know it. Rob Lowe famously forgot his lines in front of a West End audience and had no idea what to do. He walked to center stage and gave a dramatic pause toward the audience that he said lasted for five minutes. He caught his breath, found his place, and kept going as if nothing was wrong, and he got a standing ovation at the final curtain. Lawyers have a saying, “If you don’t have an argument, just argue,” so relax and enjoy the fact that you are the one people are listening to.

Don’t take yourself or your topic too seriously. Unless you’re talking about a disease or some horrific event, lighten up. Even if you travel great distances to roll out a new initiative in your company, having a relaxed and everyday demeanor will keep the information flowing, and your audience will be in the perfect headspace to receive your message.

Like many reps, I’ve given countless talks, speeches, training, presentations, and meetings on everything from rug construction to greeting customers. I’ve always tried to keep these tips in mind as I get up in front of a group. Have I always been successful; no way. No one gets on base every time, but the more times you get in front of the spotlight, the more you’ll develop this essential leadership skill. Don’t be scared of public speaking – just get better at it. It’s a pretty cool rush.

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