Public Speaking: The Secret Weapon in Career Development

By Sullivan, Vickie K. | USA TODAY, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Public Speaking: The Secret Weapon in Career Development


Sullivan, Vickie K., USA TODAY


"Professionals who speak for notoriety find it easy to come across opportunities that carry their careers forward. They see speaking not as a source of discomfort but as a focal point to build their networks and personal reputation. "

MARCIA REYNOLDS came from an upper-middle-class Jewish home. Growing up, she was a top athlete, star student ... and drug addict. Getting lost in her addiction landed her a six-month stay in the Maricopa (Phoenix, Ariz.) County jail. It was there that Reynolds found her voice and learned it was safe to speak up--and she has been speaking ever since while earning two master's degrees and building a successful 16-year career in health care and high-tech companies. She now performs public speaking internationally to build her coaching, keynote speaking, and training business. "Speaking has given me the confidence to know that I could get work in many different arenas," Reynolds professes.

Having days filled with endless e-mail and voice mail messages while attending countless meetings, it is natural to be hopeful that someone higher up will notice the effort and consider a promotion. The reality, however, is that those who are not visible become invisible and, therefore, expendable. While some prefer keeping a lower profile, many employees want anything but. By participating in panel discussions and programs at company conferences and industry events, savvy professionals with solid speaking skills are able to broaden their bases and open up new opportunities. Even more, their confidence spreads into all areas of their work because they have learned to communicate more effectively, even in one-on-one conversations. In the long ran, they develop more presence and become better leaders.

With the possibility of layoffs and reorganizations always looming, it also helps that speaking can create friends in high places. "After leaving one job," Reynolds relates, "I learned that my former boss wanted to fire me a long time ago. But she told Human Resources that she couldn't because I had too many champions at the higher levels of the company." Despite all these benefits, many professionals relegate public speaking to the "necessary evil" category. Because it feels risky, it becomes something to dodge or talk someone else into doing. For those unlucky enough to be elected to speak, abject terror can set in, derailing confidence and career goals.

"What makes speakers so nervous is that they haven't connected with the audience yet, even if it includes people they work with," explains professional speaker Garrison Wynn. "They think everyone else is okay but them." Wynn's solution: When speaking, focus on the individuals sitting in the front. "By talking directly to the folks in the front row, you get connected with them. Once you feel connected, the nervousness goes away." Using the power of stories to connect and communicate is vital. "As soon as you tell stories, the audience is available to hear your message," points out Sandra Zimmer, director of The Self-Expression Center in Houston, Tex. "Stories get you out of your head and into your gut."

Instead of effectively dealing with the stress of speaking, many would-be heroes spend every spare moment obsessing over worst-case scenarios and creating power point slides. The result is a speech that is nondescript with very few "atta boys" for all the effort. The underlying message that is communicated to the powers-that-be: This person is adequate, but nothing special.

Like anything else, public speaking is an opportunity; the benefits depend upon how it is used. Professionals who speak for notoriety find it easy to come across opportunities that carry their careers forward. They see speaking not as a source of discomfort but as a focal point to build their networks and personal reputation. "Speaking can be fun. And if you're not feeling a little nervous, then you don't care enough to do well," contends Barbara Price, senior vice-president of marketing at Mercer Capital in Memphis, Tenn. …

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