Excellence in Public Speaking: A sprint or an Ironman?

One of my hobbies is triathlon racing. I enjoy the mix of swimming, biking and running as it keeps training interesting and you meet a great bunch of people at triathlon races. Triathlon races come in different distances. For example, sprint, Olympic, half Ironman and the pinnacle of all triathlons: Ironman. These races can take an average racer from one hour in the sprint to up to 17 hours in the full Ironman. I completed the 2010 Ironman China regarded as one of the toughest races on the Ironman circuit due to the extreme heat of around 35 degrees.

As with any endurance sport, the race is really a race of two; you against yourself. Depending on your current fitness levels you need to choose your race carefully. If you are new to the sport, it makes sense to start with a sprint or Olympic distance race. If you are already a solid marathon runner or long distance biker, you could start training for an Ironman.

We can use the metaphor of triathlon to help you become a better public speaker. If career progression is important to you, public speaking needs to be a core skill you develop over time. Here are three ways public speaking is similar to triathlon:

It’s a race. Choose your race. Learn how to race.

To succeed in triathlon you need to know about swimming, cycling, running, how to transition from one discipline to another, managing nutrition in longer races and understanding what equipment will give you the most bang for your buck. In public speaking you also need to combine competency in these various disciplines:

Know your “stuff”: Understand your content inside and out without the need to look at notes.

Shape a Madison Avenue or Hollywood message: Learn techniques from the masters of messaging so that your presentation has a clear, memorable message.

Rehearse like an actor: Dedicate sufficient time to focus more on your delivery than on your content. Dress rehearsing should take at least 60% of your preparation time. Most business presenters spend only 5-10% in real rehearsal.

Deliver like performer and entertainer: Understand that in a world of shortening attention spans, simply delivering information does not result in a change of behaviour. If you are intending to influence your audience you need to understand techniques that create a more engaging and entertaining experience for them.

Handle questions like a media professional: Most people are apprehensive about the Q&A session. As a senior manager you need to be always ready to step up and handle even the most challenging of questions. In fact, you should develop this ability so it becomes your most favourite format.

Success depends on how well you know your “race”. Become familiar with the components of public speaking and start to master them one-by-one.

Choose your intensity level

Every triathlete decides how hard they race. For example:

  • Just to finish in one piece

  • Win your age group [amateurs are divided by age]

  • Top 20 in the whole field

  • Win the race

This concept of intensity also applies to public speaking. Executives decide how much time and effort they dedicate to improve their speaking abilities. We can see this through the Speak with Executive Presence Pyramid:

0.0 Ineffective
1.0 Competent
2.0 Influential
3.0 Impactful
4.0 Change-makers
5.0 Executive Presence

Executives operating in the “Ineffective” zone just want to get through the presentation without “dying” and don’t show any style. In the “Competent” zone, the aim is to deliver a competent presentation in line with their peer group. Not a stand out but above average. “Impactful” zone executives consistently deliver confident presentations and are “always ready to deliver”. They string together influential presentations. They are the go-to executive when a media interview is called at short notice.

The level of your intensity will dictate how far you can take your influencing abilities.

It’s consistency that makes you stronger.

A myth of endurance sports is the “no pain, no gain” approach. If you wish to avoid injury and perform over a long time frame, there is absolutely no need to put yourself through high amounts of pain in your training. When he visited Shanghai, two-time Ironman World Champion, Chris “Macca” McCormack told me that consistent training is the key to success in endurance sports. I need a target,like a race, to get motivated to train. The target of a race helps me plan and execute a training plan over, a typical 20 week build up for a key race.

With this target, I scour my calendar for pockets of training time. I find the energy to get up at 5am to get in extra training session, and sacrifice weekend time for a long bike ride of up to 4 hours. Just having the race in my calendar helps me become a better time manager. A 20 week build up consists of four phases:

  • Preparation; low intensity training with a focus on building up endurance.

  • Base; start to add in longer sessions and sharpen up technique.

  • Build; weekly focus on different disciplines and plan nutritional needs.

  • Taper; reduce amount of time training and switch to shorter more intense sessions. Think through race plan and on-the-day details.

When getting ready for a big presentation, you can take a similar approach. In our workshops we use a 16-step guide which can be divided into four phases:

  • Preparation; purpose, message and organisation.

  • Base; mastering content, flow and critical moments.

  • Build; rehearsals.

  • Polish; final mindset and on-the-day preparations.

Effective preparation is the key to upgrading your skills. Pick an important presentation and work on sharpening up your performance at each phase.

In conclusion

Public speaking is like triathlon racing. Both can be painful if you don’t prepare correctly, but are extremely enjoyable when you commit to improving your performance over the long term. The takeaways:

  • It’s a race. Choose your race. Learn how to race.

  • Choose your intensity.

  • It’s consistency that makes you stronger.

Further reading:

What is triathlon? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triathlon

Ironman triathlons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ironman_Triathlon

SWEP Pyramid

About the Author

Warwick J Fahy

“I work with senior executives working for multinationals in Greater China who lack the executive presence to effectively influence key stakeholders. While these executives are very smart, very knowledgeable and highly capable, a key piece missing. Their executive communication skills need polishing. I help executives build a strong foundation in executive communication so that they are able to better think, speak and act like a leader to set and implement strategy. Recently, we helped a CEO turn his communication style from being nervous and uninspiring into a more engaging, confident and purposeful executive.”  Learn more about who I help here.

Find out whether your executive team is performing to the best of their potential with Warwick’s article “10 Warning Signs Your Leaders Lack Executive Presence”. Email me and I’ll send you a PDF version.

Warwick is the author of “The One Minute Presenter: 8 steps to successful business presentations in a short attention span world”. Warwick is author of the forthcoming book ‘Speak with Executive Presence in China’ . Now available on Amazon.com.

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©2011 Warwick John Fahy

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