As the growth in automation and artificial intelligence replaces much of the work we used to do by hand in the agrarian and industrial ages, ideas matter more than ever. If you cannot persuade others to back your ideas and if you cannot excite others, motivate and inspire them, then you’ll never fulfill your destiny. Bridge the skills gap and you’ll shine in the marketplace of ideas. The good news is that standing out through persuasion requires developing a skill that machines haven’t mastered yet—the ability to connect with people through your words.
“You will jump out, much more than you can anticipate, if you get really comfortable with public speaking,” the billionaire Warren Buffett once told a class of business students. “It’s an asset that will last you 50 or 60 years and it’s a liability if you don’t like doing it.” Buffett went on to put a dollar value on the skill. He told the students that each one of them could instantly raise their professional value by 50% by improving their public-speaking skills.
Buffett wasn’t always as confident as he appears today. Early in his career, Buffett was terrified of speaking in public. He signed up for a public-speaking course and dropped out because he didn’t want to talk in front of anyone! He made it through on the second try. Today, Buffett proudly displays the certificate he received for completing the course.
Today’s business professionals are only as valuable as their ideas, but if they cannot express those ideas successfully, they’ll fail to have the influence they should have.
Indra Nooyi leads 260,000 employees as CEO of PepsiCo. Leaders, she says, must be lifelong learners. According to Nooyi, improving communication skills is one of the best investments a business professional can make to propel their career forward. “You cannot over invest in communication skills, written and oral communication,” Nooyi once said at a women’s conference. “As a leader, you constantly have to mobilize the troops. Learn how to motivate people—small groups, medium-sized groups, large groups— and how to write in a way that’s pithy and to the point.”
When Nooyi was enrolled in a master’s program at Yale University, she expected to pass the courses easily. After all, she had received an MBA from India’s top management school and had degrees in physics, chemistry, and math. Yale required that students pass a public-speaking course in order to enter the second year. Nooyi failed. Determined to succeed, Nooyi took the course again during the summer and this time, she was determined to be the best. Nooyi said the course gave her one of the best foundational skills in her career and credits the course as a crucial early ingredient in her success.
Reframe and Rehearse
While speaking comes naturally, giving a presentation in front of a group does not. None of us are born with a PowerPoint clicker in our hand. Most of us are not taught to deliver effective presentations in school, and most business professionals are untrained in classic storytelling techniques. In addition, nerves often get the best of us—just ask Shark Tank investor and real estate mogul, Barbara Corcoran.
I interviewed Corcoran years before ABC’s Shark Tank made her a household name in entrepreneurship circles. She told me about an incident that gave her a severe case of stage fright. She had been asked to give a speech at a real estate conference and completely froze. It left her shattered. Corcoran decided to conquer her fear to advance her career. Corcoran volunteered to teach a course at a local college. Over the next five years of teaching, Corcoran’s stage fright gradually diminished. Teaching the course brought an additional, unexpected benefit. Sitting in one of Corcoran’s classes was a sales dynamo who would go on to sell more condominiums for The Corcoran Group than any other realtor in the city.
Today, Corcoran says “communication is responsible for 90 percent of my success—no doubt.” Corcoran overcame her fear by following a two-step process that cognitive psychologists often use to help patients overcome almost any anxiety.
Step one is to reframe the situation. Corcoran didn’t look at the incident as a career-ending event. That would have been ‘catastrophizing’ an event—blowing it out of proportion. Instead, she saw it as an opportunity to build a skill that would elevate her among her peers. The fear of being judged by our social group served our ancestors well when they were cave-dwellers. Today, anxiety about public speaking does more harm than good. Psychologists believe re-framing the way you look at yourself will help you manage the fear. Reframing—or reappraisal—doesn’t mean ignoring the fear or pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s the act of minimizing the fear response with positive self-talk and images.
Corcoran took the required second step—teaching. While you don’t need to teach a class, rehearsing means taking every opportunity to present in front of people. Learn from champion athletes who practice under stressful conditions. They try to replicate the environment in which they’ll be competing. Psychologists have found that even mild stress will alleviate anxiety. In other words, practice in front of people, even if it’s just one or two friends. Adding a little stress while you’re rehearsing your presentation will make it more likely that you’ll shine when it counts.
You can have a great idea—the best new idea around—but if don’t have the courage and confidence to advocate for that idea, it doesn’t matter. Build your communication skills and you’ll have an edge that no computer, no robot, can replace and no degree can measure. You’ll be able to move people, excite them and ignite their imagination. That’s a skill worth building.
Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor, advisor, and the author of the new book, Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great.
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