When someone makes the difficult look easy, we tend to label it “natural.” President Barack Obama is no exception.

His ability to move people through soaring rhetoric and the engaging rhythms of his presentation is now the stuff of legend. Detractors often attribute the president’s wild popularity in large part to his oratorical skills, not his ideas. It is the personality of the president and the sheer natural magnetism at work that they insist on, nothing more.

The problem with the plot is that it assumes that good communication skills are the same as good acting skills. It presupposes that the speaker’s intention and belief in what is said is irrelevant and that people cynically cannot tell the difference. It’s that assumption, that substance takes a backseat to style (and sometimes you don’t even ride in the same car), that prevents many, if not most executives from communicating effectively in public.

Any executive looking to improve their presentation skills or public speaking confidence must first understand the basics.

In fact, acting and presenting are not the same. In the real world, ideas and words need to align with what the audience knows or thinks they know about a topic and a speaker. Contrary to popular notion, assuming that the audience is ignorant or indifferent to their own participation is dangerous. In fact, what other reason is there today to expect others to leave their offices and spend valuable time listening to presentations or speeches, if not for the audience to “see for themselves” the relevance of both the speaker and what he is doing? the speaker has to say. If the speaker really didn’t make any difference to our judgments, then all communication could take place out of sight of others or in written formats.

There are still powerful reasons for us to watch someone communicate their ideas to us directly and judge what they have to say for ourselves. The president’s mastery of communication is not a lucky accident. Mr. Obama has developed his strengths as a public communicator precisely by understanding the links between his ideas and how those ideas can more powerfully persuade others; ideas that any executive can borrow:

1.) Start with what you know. Yes, there will be times when you don’t have or can’t address the big picture. Minimize discomfort through preparation and practice. Work to build your presentation or speech around those areas that you feel comfortable talking about. If you’re forthcoming about what you know, your audience will understand if you don’t have all the answers right away.

2.) Don’t speculate about what you don’t know. Being forthcoming does not mean trying to address every possible concern or question on the subject, regardless of your experience. Be clear about the purpose of your presentation or speech, and the value you bring to your audience on that topic. Don’t seek to read. Seek to communicate.

3.) Be clear Never leave your audience wondering where you stand, why they are listening to you, or what you expect them to do with the information you are giving them. Of all the things you could say about your topic, choose only the things that are relevant to your audience and that they need to know.

4.) They’re listening, not reading Write and speak “to the ear,” the way you normally communicate orally. Your audience can’t read your comments again, so try to be understood the first time. Use a natural communication style, enunciating your words and using vocabulary with which you feel comfortable.

5.) Let Them Judge Understand that your audience is looking for your perspective, not just data. Thank you for your attention and expand with examples, stories and experiences, not just facts. Relate those facts and data to some more important points and conclusions. Find something to give your audience that they couldn’t have gotten from you any other way than by looking and listening.

Powerful public speaking and presentation skills are not “gifted” to a few lucky people. They take work and practice. Start with something you want to communicate, combine it with your strengths as a communicator, and leave the acting to the actors.


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