Professional Speakers: Interview with Jay Forte
Audience evaluations, jokes for speeches, personal challenges... putting everything together can be overwhelming sometimes, to say the least. So much so that it can be hard to recognize success, even when you have it!
Luckily, there are people out there who are willing to share their talents to help others overcome these obstacles. Just recently, I had the opportunity to speak with one of these people. His name is Jay Forte, a professional speaker and businessman.
If you're interested in improving your speaking, you want to know what Jay has to say. This is the first of a two-part interview.
1. Let's jump right in. You have your own speaking and consulting company, Humanetrics LLC. You've help people build businesses, spoken for major corporations, written for major publications, and been featured in success magazines. Yet you started out as a CPA. How does that happen?! What path has your career taken?
Starting out as a CPA is a very strategic approach to a career. Since all of business requires using numbers to manage and monitor results, a CPA background provided me with essential fundamentals and a strong financial perspective in all roles in an organization. This is critically invaluable in all business roles.
My major three roles were all financial positions – CPA, Controller and CFO. Each of them always seemed to include an opportunity to teach, present or speak. Whether it was presenting the financial results to the company or to senior management, teaching business principles to employees, or speaking at conferences about the innovations implemented in the business, each of my previous roles provided me with an opportunity to stand in front of others and share information. This set me up to take over a Director of Education role for a large international wholesale distributor. The responsibilities included creating a complete business curriculum including strategy, human capital management, sales, customer service, ethics and compliance, operations and innovation as well as all teaching and performance management. After nearly 10 years as Education Director, I stepped out on my own to travel, speak and consult in my favorite areas of business education.
The lesson learned in my background is that speakers have to be an expert in two areas: in a particular discipline such as business, strategy, etc. AND speaking. Speakers have to have something important to say and must know how to say it in a way that activates change in the audience. The practice in both speaking and the business focus has created a very clear path as a performance consultant and speaker. Again, it couples high value content with an adeptness to address an audience.
2.You've seen enough different careers to know more than I do. How does public speaking skill effect business and management ability?
All management and leadership professionals are expected to comfortably and effectively address an audience. Speaking well is a requirement to present an award, give a toast, explain a new policy or procedure, or teach a class. Since it is expected that those in more senior levels can clearly and professionally speak in front of others, it is considered a significant shortcoming if the manager/leader is unable to do this well.
I used to work for a large company who had a very talented CFO. Behind closed doors, this CFO was brilliant. He was able to visualize the financial consequences to decisions more quickly and more accurately than any other employee. However, when in front of any size audience, this talented CFO was completely unintelligible and unable to make a point, positively influence an audience or share a perspective. His financial prowess was overshadowed by his inability to professionally present an idea in public. All professionals do not have to love being in front of an audience, but their roles require that they at least be capable of sharing information, thoughts, and ideas in a manner that encourages the audience to listen.
3. In regards to public speaking, what are the challenges you see people dealing with most often? How can they work to overcome those challenges?
There are two significant challenges and they are on either side of the presentation coin. The first relates to those who have no confidence in front of an audience. Statistics show that both death and arachnophobia are less feared that public speaking. This attitude has permeated many people’s perspectives of public speaking and therefore they have told themselves (in their internal voice) that they are incapable of presenting to an audience. This affects their confidence and insures their lack of success. Confidence in front of an audience is easy to build. To overcome the lack of confidence, an important and effective first step is to do your research; become the expert on your given topic or subject. When a speaker is an expert, he can comfortably explain what he knows instead of relying on notes. Knowing your subject matter also helps to alleviate nervousness because you feel confident about your material; this level of confidence helps the speaker answer most any questions. When you exhibit the air of expertise and confidence, you will notice that the audience wants to know what you know. Even the most experienced speakers and presenters still gets butterflies in their stomach; this illustrates not only their humanity, but helps get the adrenaline going to help them deliver a more exciting and entertaining presentation.
The second greatest challenge happens in those who are overconfident or who use the speaking event to draw attention to themselves. A powerful speaker is never the center of attention; his material and its value to the audience is the center of the presentation. There is a great phrase used when teaching others to become exceptional presenters: “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” The more a speaker draws attention to what he knows as a means to impress the audience, the more he limits his value. Audiences are selfish – they want information that will help them. Rarely are they in attendance to see the speaker; rather, they want what the speaker knows and is sharing. Self-aggrandizing speakers alienate their audiences because they offer the audience little value. The more the speaker understands the audience and assesses what the audience needs of his expertise, the more he draws all of the attention of the presentation back onto the audience. This is also great for the shy speaker as it takes the spotlight off of the speaker and onto the audience.
4. What's the 'toughest' crowd you've ever had to deal with? How did you do it? What are some good principles to keep in mind in order to connect with your audience?
Any time a program is mandated to an audience member (i.e. they are required to attend), you have the potential for “tough” crowd. Before I share a tough event, remember that ideally, there are few tough crowds because if you learn to assess the needs of your audience and respond to their needs, they will constantly find your topic or information valuable. The reason tough crowds exist is that they find no value in the speaker and feel their time is wasted. Very few of us have time to waste, so an initially interested audience can quickly become a tough audience if the speaker’s content has no personal value or is delivered in a boring and unimaginative way.
As for my own story, I was teaching a course on Human Capital Management – a new way of igniting employee passionate performance - for my company. This was a new concept for the organization and was contrary to the way the company historically approached managing its employees. I had done the research, had tested the concepts and had proof that they not only worked, but were easy to implement and had a direct impact on the bottom line. Having sold the concept to senior management, all distribution location managers were mandated to attend the program. More than half of each program was attended by managers who had been operating in the same way for years with no interest in changing. One audience in particular had a loud, distractive member who felt the concept was not for him or his location. He raised his hand and proceeded to tell the balance of the class, and me, that the concept was a waste of time, that he was attending because he was mandated to attend and that he expected to get nothing out of the program. I publicly appreciated his candor and then offered five reasons why his personal performance would change overnight if he participated. He did reluctantly and by the end of the day, stood up, publicly apologized and became the prize student for the balance of the program. Lesson learned: know and be confident in your material. This situation really illustrates the need for knowledge. Anyone can answer a question when they know how to answer it.
5. Anyone in public speaking for long enough lands in some funny situations once in a while. What's the most humorous experience you've had?
Two situations come to mind. Remember back in 4th grade when teachers made you go to the chalkboard (okay, I am dating myself here) and do long division problems? At the moment you approached the chalkboard, you forgot everything. Even the simplest of calculations or spelling seemed a problem. The same happens to even experienced speakers. In calculating the score for a class competition, I continually added the most simple of numbers incorrectly. Add that I am a CPA to the equation and I had the class rolling on the floor. Lesson learned: good speakers need to be humble because sometimes we act very human.
A second situation was a well-intentioned comment that became an unplanned double entendre where one of the meanings was perverse. Or the slip of the tongue when you said "breast" instead of "best," or "digged" instead of "dug." Again, as the mouth gets moving faster and faster, sometimes I have been known to create words that are not real words, mispronounce them, put the wrong stress on a word, or sound like I am speaking another language. Only when the audience draws your attention to it can you use it to build a rapport with them by highlighting your humanity. And most people in the audience are on the side of a "human" presenter because they realize how difficult speaking in front of others can be. A good laugh and self-deprecating humor is a great way to connect to any audience.
6. And finally, how do you know when a speech 'worked?' How do you know when you've accomplished your goals? What are some of your greatest success stories?
The goal of any good speech is to influence behavior; generally, the point of any speech is to try to activate someone to do something. A speech has the potential to be effective when the speaker spends time assessing the audience to know of his expertise areas, which will be the most meaningful to the particular audience. At the beginning of each speech, a speaker has no more than three minutes to get the attention of the audience, and in that time, convince them that what he is presenting is of great personal value to them (and they should pay attention). This is the point to review the direction of the speech, the benefits for and the expectations of the audience. The clearer this is and the more matched to the audience, the greater the likelihood that the speech will be effective.
All great speeches are really more of a "conversation" than presentation. Though the speaker or presenter may start the presentation, adults learn and retain better (and the speech is a learning event) when they participate. Therefore, the speech becomes a conversation (interactive presentation) since the speaker must involve the audience in responding, trying concepts, role play, activities or other ways to get the audience to use the information. This is very helpful to the speaker for a couple of great reasons:
- It gets the attention off the speaker and on to the audience. This helps the audience remember that the speaker’s role is to help them in an area that is important.
- It gives the speaker the opportunity to see what the audience remembers and will take away from the presentation. This allows the speaker to return to a specific topic if the audience seems confused or does not seem to grasp a concept or topic, or to move on if the audience is comfortable with the information.
- It gives the audience the time to practice with new information. Statistics show that they are most likely to retain the message of the speech if they are able to actively try it during the program.
A good speaker knows when a speech has worked; he sees the behavior of the audience that he expects. It may be a new skill, an emotional response to a wedding toast, a new perspective, or greater confidence. He knows the speech has worked when he can revisit the objectives presented at the beginning of the speech (all speakers must always present the direction or objectives of the speech as adults are more willing to participate if they know the direction and expectations) and see that the behavior of the audience shows that they understood and can use what was said.
I have had clients who several days after a program have called to report back how what they learned was implemented and changed their business overnight. One client indicated that he made personnel changes according to the model he learned in class and fired two lackluster employees, realigned positions, and posted a 35% increase to profits in the first month. Another stated that he was able to leave his business and take a vacation (first time in 15 years) and know that the business would be functioning correctly in his absence. Another bought 10 books in the subject area and has become a passionate supporter of a new way to manage employees and has invented ways for employees to contribute in significantly greater ways.
[Devin's note: Right here marks the official end of the first part of our interview, but Jay was kind enough to through in a couple more pieces of advice. Read on.]
How can you evaluate your audience? Does that take experience and time to learn how to do?
Assessing and evaluating an audience actually happens in three places:
First - Audience evaluation is the first critical step prior to speech preparation. Every audience is different and all speakers must review their materials with a focus to the needs and interests of the particular audience. Remember, a "one-size-fits–all" presentation is ineffective. A speaker must always customize his message to his exact audience. Evaluating an audience involves asking the following questions prior to preparing the speech:
- Who is this audience? What are their backgrounds, experience and perceptions?
- Why are they attending this speech or program?
- Of my expertise, what will matter most to this audience?
- How does this audience learn?
- What would this audience consider to be a successful speech/program?
- What is the primary "take away" I want for this audience?
The second place to evaluate your audience is as you greet them. This helps to confirm your understanding and previous assessment of them and to locate supportive and high-energy audience members (because they will be important to help maintain your poise and energy as you start presenting).
The third place to evaluate your audience is during your presentation. Watch their faces, listen to their responses and watch their interactions to see if they understand your message. If not, you may need to re-present a component of your material until they understand.
The process of constantly evaluating is critical for a speaker because the goal of speaking is not simply to present the speech, but rather to inform, inspire, change, evoke or present; all of these require constant feedback from your audience.
Evaluate your audience in these three places and you will always know what your audience is thinking. Adjust and modify as you see necessary to continually connect to your audience, and know that when you present again, you will need to change the presentation to better match the backgrounds, interests and needs of your new audience.
Using a joke to open a speech: too cliché? When is it appropriate? When is it far from appropriate? Is it inappropriate to use jokes throughout a presentation?
Jokes and humor are great when they follow these two very important rules:
- You must be able to successfully tell a good joke that activates the right response from the audience. Many people are not good at using humor and should not risk humor in the speech opening; if it fails, you are forced to start your speech trying to win your audience back. That is a lot of pressure for even an experienced speaker.
- No off-color jokes because even when you evaluate your audience, you do not know the personal perspectives and beliefs of each audience member. The goal of your speech is to win as many of the audience as possible into your perspective. (Accidentally) insulting any member of the audience with off-color humor reflects poorly on the speaker and as above, you now must work to win your audience back. Stay away from sexual, identity, ethnic and religious humor – there is more risk than reward in it.
Additionally, consider using humor only if it is a natural fit with your personality. If you are a more serious person, humor will seem out of place and unnatural for you. Be true to your nature when you speak; it makes you more believable and helps you connect to your audiences more authentically.
To quote one apt description description: "Jay Forte is a public speaker, focusing on helping managers become exceptional at what they do, including how to find the perfect employee for the job, and on the flip side, how to match employee talents to their positions. He has traveled around the country to speak and has written articles based on his observations. Each session he teaches is driven by his passion for achieving success through extraordinary means."
You can find out more about Jay and his programs by visiting Humanetrics LLC.
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