I am attending one of my client’s company meetings. There are 200 employees in the room. You can feel the buzz and excitement. Upbeat music is playing, and a slick PowerPoint presentation is spinning, doing action-packed transitions on a big screen. The music slowly fades, and the group leader confidently strides to the lectern. In a few short minutes, the energy and enthusiasm in the room are dead, the unfortunate victims of a horrible presentation. The speaker stumbles over her words, stares uncomfortably at the audience, and grips the lectern with white-knuckled hands. Meanwhile, everyone’s interest flatlines. Although this speaker is a leader, she obviously doesn’t present like one. This should never happen.

As I travel around the country, I see leaders at all levels who are absolutely disastrous speakers. If you’re in a leadership role, you’ve got to be able to speak and present well. Leaders in any organization are required to give prepared speeches, direct Q&A sessions, and speak extemporaneously. If you hold such a position but aren’t great at public speaking, you need help immediately. You may be killing your career as a leader. Here are two compelling reasons why you should take your presentation skills seriously:

  • Perception, perception, perception – A critical aspect of leadership (like it or not) is perception. When people present and speak, the audience forms immediate perceptions of them. Is this person competent, confident, clear, thoughtful, and articulate? Whether it’s fair or not, groups will make judgments about your competency as a leader based on how well you speak.
  • Communication – Speaking and presenting help to provide effective communication in a leadership role. Such tools make it easier for leaders to connect with groups. Good presentations can make employees enthusiastic about their teams, goals, objectives, and organizations. Powerful presenters inspire and motivate those who hear them. If a leader can’t communicate in a clear, compelling way, then the team will not follow. In some larger organizations, the only time employees are exposed to a leader is when they hear the person speak at a meeting. So which is it: brilliant or boring? Dull or dynamic? Articulate or anesthetic?

Here are five tips any leader can use today to get better at presenting and speaking.

Be sure of where you are.

Have colleagues you trust observe you while you are speaking or presenting. Have them agree to give you honest, unvarnished feedback on what you are doing well and what you could improve. Someone else needs to observe you because you can’t be objective. You can’t see yourself when you’re presenting and may not be aware of your habits and idiosyncrasies. You may use certain hand motions repeatedly. You may say “okay” 20 times in five minutes. Having objective observers helps you to identify both your strengths and areas for improvement.

Study and read.

When was the last time you worked on your own development? If you have to stop and think about it, it’s been too long. Get some books or audio programs on public speaking. A quick search of Amazon.com revealed that there were 1,929 books listed on public speaking alone! Start studying the art and science of speaking and presenting. Write down specific ideas and techniques you want to incorporate, and try them next time you speak.

Watch other speakers – Every time you see other speakers, notice the techniques they’re using, what they are doing well, and, in your opinion, what doesn’t work. Notice what they are doing vocally. Notice their body language. Take note of any visuals they may use. Observe how they organize their content. Notice how the audience is reacting. Try to determine if some of the techniques they are using would work for you. Great speakers always study other great speakers and emulate them.

Videotape yourself.

As the old saying goes, the camera doesn’t lie. Set up a camera and film your next presentation. When you record yourself giving a speech or a presentation, you get a picture of what the audience is seeing and hearing. Without editing or polishing, you see it all. Take some quiet, uninterrupted time, and watch the video. Set aside your ego and your pride. Write down what went well. It is important to know your strengths because, obviously, you want to keep capitalizing on them. What do you see on the video that makes you unique and compelling? Write down areas for improvement, and, more important, ask what you can do to change them. (If you’ve been studying and reading as suggested in tip 2 above, this will be a lot easier for you.)

Get outside help.

Here are many valuable resources to help improve your speaking and presenting skills.

  • Option #1 – Join Toastmasters. This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people improve their speaking and leadership skills. Here is how it works. The organization has regular meetings in most areas. At each meeting, people give prepared speeches and get feedback from predetermined evaluators. There is also a portion of each Toastmasters meeting called Table Topics that gives people practice speaking off the cuff. Toastmasters is inexpensive (under $100 per year) and very effective. People who attend are all there for the same reason–to get better at speaking. Find a club near you at www.toastmasters.org.
  • Option #2 – Get a private speaking coach who can work with you one on one. It is an expensive but highly effective method for improvement because you get individual attention.
  • Option #3 – Find the hundreds of training organizations that offer public seminars on public speaking, and attend them.

In the future, public speaking and presentation skills will become even more important to those in leadership roles. Leaders must be great communicators, and when they speak, they have to make an instant impression–a positive one.

If you don’t feel you can make a strong impression now, then get help before it’s too late. Don’t become another statistic.