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What Public Speaking Taught Me About Leadership

While in graduate school, I taught public speaking for two years. It was my favorite class to teach because it was a required course for all majors, so I had the privilege of interacting with students with diverse backgrounds, interests and aspirations. The enjoyment of the course was not a mutual feeling – students often walked in the first day scowling, hunched over and/or looking completely panicked. It turns out no one was looking forward to a semester of public speaking more than I was. Nearly a decade and a half later, I have come to believe more was taught in that course than how to give a great speech. Some of the basic tenets to a memorable speech are also the key tenets for effective leadership.

  1. Use an extemporaneous style.

In public speaking, this means don’t read your speech. Know it – but don’t sound like a robot. For leaders, this speaks to the importance of being your authentic self. Be open to learning, read up on the subject but know your authenticity is the key ingredient to your effectiveness as a leader. According to Gallup, “leadership isn’t one-size-fits-all — and you’ll become the best leader you can be if you find out what makes you uniquely powerful.” 1 Great orators don’t mimic other great speakers – they lean into their unique style over and over again. Great leaders can do the same.


  1. The power of the amygdala.

As students came panicked and trudging into class on the first day of the semester, they were met with a picture of a woolly mammoth shining on the whiteboard. The first lesson of every semester was about  what this creature and public speaking had in common. The answer? Both activate the amygdala for most people which means our brains say one of these things:

“DANGER! DANGER! Run for the hills!”

“DANGER! DANGER! Get a tree branch and take that thing down!”

“DANGER! DANGER! I don’t know what to do so I’ll just freeze, hope I’m not noticed and wait for danger to pass.”

This fight/flight/freeze response is a protective mechanism in our brains, but it doesn’t always serve us well. When our amygdala is activated, we quickly assume we have a binary choice (fight/flight) or that there is no choice at all (freeze). More often than not, there are third, fourth, and fifth options.

Regarding leadership, our amygdala can remind us of the importance of leading with heart – not just our heads. Leading with heart puts people first and prioritizes relationships. It requires transparency, authenticity and taking the time to get to know staff on a personal level. It results in employees being more engaged in their jobs with a higher degree of trust. In this environment, staff and teams are more likely to meet and exceed goals.

Leading from the head or mind prioritizes goals, metrics, and high standards of excellence. In her book, “The Fearless Organization,” Amy Edmondson argues that in our new economy we need both styles of leadership. The most effective leaders are adept to tapping into both styles2.

So, how does this tie back to the amygdala? In my own experience, I notice I’m stuck leading with only my head when I feel like there are only two options – especially when faced with making a big decision. In these moments, I have used this as a reminder to tap into people to find a third way. As leaders, we don’t need to feel trapped in binaries. Instead, we can lead with heart to find a path that is more engaging, rewarding, and impactful on our goals and teams.

  1. Know your audience

Throughout the semester, students gave various types of speeches – informative, policy, commemorative and invitational. To be successful, it was important they knew their audience.  In our class, this was made of a multitude of majors, backgrounds and beliefs.  My favorite unit was always policy speeches because both sides of many policies were often presented.

For leaders, knowing your team is the same as knowing your audience. Getting to know your team is an ongoing process that requires frequent check-ins. One of my favorite check-ins comes from Dr. Brenè Brown. She starts out meetings by asking attendees to offer two words for how they are feeling on that particular day3. This ritual builds connection, belonging, safety and self-awareness.

A speaker must know their audience in order for a speech to be effective. The same is true for leaders. Both long-term relationships and frequent check-ins are key .

  1. The art of persuasion

As I mentioned, the policy speech unit was my favorite to teach. It was exciting to see what issues interested students and I enjoyed hearing speeches that were intended to advocate for a position, rather than simply change the minds of peers. Students were required to not only debate the problem at hand but also propose new solutions to address that problem. The students that were most effective in writing and delivering these speeches, were those that had thoroughly researched all sides of the issues and came with more than one proposed solution.

For me, this is such a relevant example for effective leadership.  To lead teams and drive results, we need to be very clear on the problem we are trying to solve and be open to more than one solution to make the impact we seek. In his book, “Drive,” Daniel Pink argues that a key to motivating people is not a checklist of things to complete or accomplish, but rather autonomy and the ability to direct their own work and lives. This is one reason why results-only work environments (ROWEs) have been shown to correlate to a major increase in productivity. People don’t want to be told what to do. They need their leader to help provide a clear understanding of their goals so that they can achieve them how and when they want to4. The best way to persuade people is to tap into their intrinsic motivation so that they are accountable and responsible for their own results.

As I sit and reflect on the hours I spent listening to speeches, I hope that even a few of the students I had the privilege to teach come to believe that speech class was more than coming face to face with their fear every day. I hope that they too have fond memories of the life skills and lessons we learned together in Eddy Hall at Colorado State University.


4Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us