Discover the Seven Essential Qualities of Exceptional Speakers (Part 1)

In the past three weeks, we’ve unpacked three important facets of public speaking:

  1. The two schools of thought on the use of critiques to improve your speaking skills
  2. How Unconscious Traps sabotage you, with three examples of how they do it
  3. The Simple Shifts you can make to escape those Unconscious Traps that lie in wait for every novice speaker.

This week, we’ll pivot a little so you can see the results of making those Simple Shifts, in Part 1 of a two-part post: “Discover The Seven Qualities of Exceptional Speakers.” This time, you’ll discover the first three—and next week, the remaining four.

What Is It About Exceptional Speakers?

It’s very easy to spot an exceptional speaker. They leave us feeling energized, like we’re a part of something bigger than us. They touch us deeply—they show us things we’ve been blind to and they give us new language.

How they do it seems like magic to those of us who think we’ll never be able to do what they do.

If you’re ready to pull the curtain back on the apparent magic of how an exceptional speaker does what she or he does, keep reading. Once you discover these qualities, you’ll have a roadmap to help you tap into the ones you already have and a checklist to develop the ones you don’t.

Before we get to that list, why not make this exploration richer for yourself by bringing to mind your own experience? In less than three minutes, you can do three things to prime your mental pump:

  1. Think of the most exceptional speaker you’ve ever seen—the one you’ll never forget because of the impact she/he had on you.
  2. Think of another speaker you’ve seen who was skilled at speaking, and even polished in appearance, yet didn’t have the impact of the previous one.
  3. Mentally take yourself back to those two experiences, so the details are fresh in your memory.

As you read through the rest of this post, consider each of the listed qualities by connecting them to the experience you had with each of these speakers. Here’s what you’ll get when you do: a more memorable idea of what each quality looks like, feels like and sounds like, as well as a way to measure both experiences so you can use what you discover.

The First Three Qualities

Quality #1: Attractive

As easy as it might be to write this one off if you feel that it only describes beautiful people, there’s a lot more to this one than mere good looks. The word “attractive” comes from the root word, “attract.” It means “to cause to approach; to pull or draw to oneself.”

That means there’s something compelling about this speaker that makes you want to pay attention to them. Usually it’s the way they carry themselves and the way they interact with their audience. It’s like they have a magnet on you—even before they reach the podium—because there’s something about them that’s simply irresistible.

Now think about the speaker you identified as unforgettable. How did they embody this quality? What did they do that drew you to them and made you want to listen? (Now that you’re looking for it, it’s a lot more obvious, isn’t it?)

How about the other speaker? What was missing in them that was present in your exceptional speaker? (It wasn’t about good looks, was it?)

Now that you’ve explored this one quality in both of your speakers, you’ve identified something more detailed than I could write about in a book—let alone in this blog. You’ve tapped into your own experience and seen something more clearly than anyone could describe it to you. Odds are high that you’ve also started to build your own map for the qualities you want to claim for your own speaking.

Now that you’ve got the hang of this, let’s look at the next two qualities in the same way and see what you can discover.

Quality #2: Confident

This is the secret ingredient that everyone wants to claim for their own speaking—as if it were a one-size-fits-all outfit that would instantly transform us all into exceptional speakers. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

Here’s what is true: confidence shows up in all shapes and sizes, in ways that are unique to each speaker. What’s common about every version of confidence is that its presence is immediately experienced by other people as a feeling. You either feel it—or you don’t. The audience either feels it—or it doesn’t. (This is where confidence gets the reputation of one-size-fits-all).

When a speaker is comfortable in their own skin, it manifests externally to others as this quality we call “confidence.” It’s actually the speaker’s internal feeling of comfort and ease that’s transmitted directly to the audience, who also instantly feels it. (I have a friend who describes it like this: “We can smell confidence—at 5000 feet.”)

This quality is obvious to others—immediately. What’s not so obvious is that confidence is an “inside job” that’s directly connected to a decision this speaker has made about him-or-herself. This decision allows them to claim their space to speak, claim the purpose of their message and claim their connection to this audience. This decision is bigger than the individual who makes it—and bigger than any fear they might have.

Let’s take this quality back to your exceptional speaker: what did they do that exuded confidence? Now that you’re looking, it can be a lot easier to identify.

And the other speaker: what was different about them? What do you notice about their level of confidence that left them less-than-memorable for you?

My guess is that you’re on a roll here! Odds are high that as you compare your experience with my descriptions, you are getting a much richer experience than from my words alone. This is one of the secrets that exceptional speakers share: when you connect to your audience and connect them to their own experiences with your presentation, you become unforgettable. And that leads us to our next quality…

Quality #3: Connected

When you feel like the presenter is speaking directly to you (even in a crowded auditorium), you’ve experienced this quality. I call this The Jerry McGuire moment: “You had me at hello!” on steroids. Here is a speaker who knows everyone’s name in a small meeting. Even in a big crowd, she or he is mentioning people in the audience by name, even though they’ve just met. You feel like you know this speaker, because she or he clearly knows you. More than knowing names, they are speaking directly to what you care most about with their presentation.

Think back to your exceptional speaker: how did they do this? And your other speaker: what was different?

More to Come Next Week

That’s the end of Part One—and I look forward to catching up with you next week to unpack the remaining four qualities.

Meanwhile, now that you’ve explored these first three with me, why not take them out over the next week and experiment? Head over to TED.com and watch some of the best speakers present their ideas. Use what you’ve discovered to identify what these speakers are doing that really works. I promise you that among all those effective speakers, you’ll find the exceptional ones!

If you enjoyed this article, why not:

  1. Share this with a colleague who would benefit from it.
  2. Tune in next week for the rest of the story.
  3. Let me know about your experience with great speakers in the comments!

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