I recently received some workshop feedback that surprised me. The organizer wrote,
Many participants said at the end of the session that they have always believed there was a primary way to do public speaking and they simply needed to emulate that model. You gave them permission to find their own unique public speaking style. [emphasis added]
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised — after all, I named my book Speak Like Yourself… No, Really! because I know that people don’t think it’s OK to sound like themselves.
But these workshop participants were young, smart, well-educated, and on their way to successful careers as non-profit executives. I sort of expected that people in the people-oriented non-profit sector would know that it’s OK to be… just people.
This got me to thinking about how hard it can be for young up-and-comers to develop an individual public speaking style.
Blame The Bland Public Speaking Style of Many Young Professionals on Their Apprenticeships
Once upon a time, skilled craftspeople — musicians, cabinetmakers, weavers, etc. — started out as apprentices. They lived with a master of their trade, and functioned as servants in exchange for being taught.
Aside from living in the master’s office instead of his house, today’s “apprenticeship” system looks similar:
- Corporate Lawyers serve 7-10 years as “associates” before they get a crack at “partner”;
- Doctors serve 5+ years as interns and residents;
- Executive Chefs start out as kitchen assistants or line cooks; and
- VPs of Sales start out as sales reps — in the least promising territories.
In all of these groups — and many others that I haven’t mentioned — you work long hours for lesser pay, learn from your supervisors, and slowly climb the ladder.
You also learn the rules of behavior in your trade group, including how you’re expected to socialize, dress, and — most important, from the public speaking point of view — talk.
Learning to Purge Personality from Your Speech
And just how are young “apprentices” supposed to talk? While this varies somewhat from workplace to workplace, you’ll generally be expected to cultivate a public speaking style that:
- Uses your industry’s jargon — even when “plain talk” would be clearer;
- Makes it (always!) sound like things are under control — which means that you’re often trying to obscure what’s really going on!; and
- Doesn’t rock the boat — by challenging higher-ups or clients, even when you see them making serious mistakes.
These rules, while unspoken, are very clear. And most young “apprentices” work hard to comply because they want to sound “professional” and “mature.”
Unfortunately, if you stick too closely to these rules, you’ll have little opportunity to develop a personal public speaking style!
The Public Speaking Style Bait-and-Switch
And there’s another problem too: At a certain point in your career, the requirement for how a “professional” should sound shifts radically. Suddenly, you “should” have a public speaking style that helps you:
- Motivate people;
- Mesmerize a room full of listeners; and
- Lead with forceful self-assurance that makes everyone in sight believe that you know best.
Not everyone is going to fit this mold! But even people who want to be “large and in charge” will find it harder if they’ve just spent up to 10 years communicating in a generic and self-effacing way that left little room for honing their authentic public speaking power.
So what’s a young professional to do?
When It Comes to Your Public Speaking Style, Begin As You Mean to Go On
The thing to remember about public speaking is that you’re always practicing:
- If you never speak up in a meeting, you’re practicing letting people think that you have nothing to say.
- If you always use the driest, least colorful words you can find (the ones that seem safe and appropriate), you’re practicing being dry and colorless.
- If you never let your personality shine through, you’re practicing not shining through, etc.
And while these may seem like reasonable choices at the start of your career, when you’re still uncertain in many ways, they’ll quickly become counter-productive.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore the rules of decorum in your workplace. (Been there, done that, not good!) But it is useful — if you want to come into your own as a speaker, a leader, and a person who commands respect — to gradually push those boundaries. For example,
- Early in your career, you may learn more from watching how others respond to a bad idea than by challenging it yourself.
- As you grow in experience, though, start voicing your opinion. You can do this tactfully by leading with a comment like, “Joe, I’d like to suggest a different perspective,” or “Jane, can we look at what might go wrong here?”
- By the time you’ve truly hit your stride, you’ll be ready to speak like yourself. Whether you say, “Joe, you could drive a truck through the holes in that idea,” or “Jane, I don’t think you’re going to convince us that this makes sense,” or something totally different, the point is that your public speaking style should make you sound like you!
These changes don’t come all at once, and you don’t need to push yourself to make them if you’re not ready. But be sure that you’re not holding yourself back!
Aim to sound more and more like yourself as you take each new step up the ladder — because speaking like yourself is one of the perks of success!
And, of course, let me know if I can help!