Talking Big Ideas.
“It is the privilege of a lifetime to become who you truly are.”
~ Carl Jung
Public speaking is hard work.
David Kirby, the founder of a successful school in Washington DC, suggests spending six weeks to prepare for a 12-minute talk. Jill Bolte Taylor famously said she practiced her viral 18-minute Stroke of Insight speech for hundreds of hours.
And speaking can be terrifying. This week a friend told me she was so nervous before a recent talk she couldn’t eat or sleep. Even icons from Cicero to Churchill admitted to feeling serious anxiety before big presentations.
Is it really worth all the effort and hassle? Especially given how busy and stressed out people are today?
The billionaire investor Warren Buffett thinks so. He says public speaking is the single most important skill a person can acquire to boost their career. “It’s an asset that will last you 50 or 60 years . . . you can improve your value 50 percent just by learning public speaking.”
The head of a research team in DC told me this is particularly important for academics and wonks with advanced technical skills. Often their biggest problem, he said, is their ability to communicate. Everything from eye contact to exposition to eloquence.
I’ve shared this tweet before from the entrepreneur Paul Graham:
The better we think, the better we communicate. And when we put in the effort to craft a quality essay or speech, it forces us to clarify our thoughts.
Public speaking helps us think well.
We learn to give more attention to our ideas and words as well as our appearance and voice. We come to better understand our audience and how we can best help them. This improves our ability to connect with others. To listen and build trust.
Public speaking increases our value to people – and to the places we work. It is largely an exercise in building our brand and becoming more useful.
Perhaps this is why every culture from every era has prized effective communication. Aristotle said being able to speak well in public is essential for our institutions to function. For the best policies, laws, and ideas to advance, people must be able to clearly explain why they matter.
The psychologist Steven Pinker writes that “it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift” this is:
We humans are fitted with a means of sharing our ideas, in all their unfathomable vastness. . . . When we listen to speech, we can be led to think thoughts that have never been thought before and that never would have occurred to us on our own.
Steve Jobs understood this. Every aspect of his presentations were fine tuned and rehearsed weeks in advance. He practiced until his presence created a “reality distortion field” that changed countless minds and, eventually, the world.
Consider a pitch you deliver that gets your startup an extra $5 million in funding. How much of your time would it be worth investing in that pitch?
An executive told me he’s working to grow his nonprofit fivefold to $50 million. Virtually all of that growth will depend on him and his colleagues effectively communicating with donors.
A tech client of ours pulled together a team to pitch a multi-billion dollar project to the prime minister of a country. Their idea could revolutionize how millions of people live. Afterwards he texted me: “We crushed it!”
If he succeeds, I wonder, what will be the full long-term value of that presentation?
Another client of ours is about to argue a case before the Supreme Court. There’s an old saying that “you can not win your case at oral argument, you can only lose it.” The attorney arguing the case cleared his schedule well in advance to practice and make sure he’s ready to effectively answer every conceivable question he gets.
Ted Kennedy may have cost himself the presidency by flubbing one answer in a big presentation. By contrast, Barack Obama may have secured his spot in the White House after crushing his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Regardless of who you are and what you do, your speaking skills affect most aspects of your life. From your impact on others to where you work and how much you get paid. Even your friends, deep relationships, and life partner are determined in no small part by your communication skills.
Perhaps most importantly, learning to speak well changes the way you interact with yourself. You can transform from self-loathing to self-confident. Your jitters replaced with joy. The speaking coach Dale Carnegie wrote:
Think of the glow of satisfaction and pleasure that will come from the exercise of this new power. . . . lasting inward satisfaction . . . will give you a sense of strength, a feeling of power. It will appeal to your pride and personal accomplishments. . . . There is a magic in it and a never-to-be-forgotten thrill.
Speaking with confidence transforms us inside and out. We overcome our fears, doubts, and Imposters Syndrome. We become liberated to be ourselves and realize our potential.
The most common regret people have on their deathbed is this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” The author Dan Pink calls it The Mega Regret. The more we learn to clarify our ideas and speak with confidence, the less likely we are to fall victim to this peer pressure and conformity.
As the poet W.H. Auden wrote, the key moment of maturity in life arises when we find our own voice – and the courage to use it.
Learn to speak well. You will change yourself – and perhaps the world – for the better.
What is something you honestly believe in and feel passionate about? Commit to thinking about how you can talk about it in a clear, compelling, and authentic way.
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