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Speaking Up

A top executive shares her confessions from public speaking boot camp

As the Executive Director of a major LA-based nonprofit, Deborah Marcus regularly finds herself speaking before large groups of influential people. Her role at CISLA (Communities In Schools, Los Angeles)—the country’s top high school dropout prevention organization—requires presenting at A-list galas, raising funds from donors and running meetings with the staff of the talent agency CAA, CISLA’s partner company. But despite the frequency of her presentations, Marcus admits she hasn’t yet perfected the art of public speaking.

“I gave a speech a few years ago at the [CISLA] annual gala and halfway through my speech I realized I was standing with my legs crossed. That closes you off; it’s a sign of insecurity, and it’s one of those things we don’t even think about,” says Marcus. Her realization came after completing a two-day course called Own The Room. The training program, run by public speaking veteran Bill Hoogterp, acts as an intensive public speaking boot camp for a range of professions, including executives, business owners, athletes, celebrities, lawyers and more. Hoogterp, the company’s CEO, has worked with notables including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Breaking Bad actor Giancarlo Esposito, among others.

“I think anybody that’s in a position to run a meeting or speaks regularly to small or large groups can benefit,” says Marcus. Here, she shares her five major takeaways from Own the Room’s training program.

1. Be prepared and practice. Perfecting a public presentation begins with rehearsal.

In order to teach attendees the importance of practice and preparation, they’re tasked with a “Two Minute Talk” in which they present about a topic of their choice. The pressure is heightened when attendees find out that they’ll be filmed by a professional camera crew, have their hair and makeup done and have paid actors sitting in an audience. “Everybody stresses out about it…We all lost sleep,” says Marcus. “I came completely unprepared.” In the process, she learned the importance of rehearsal and practice. “It truly trains you for the next time you’re in front of an audience—whether it’s prepping for a dinner party speech in front of your co-workers or a massive Ted talk,” she says.

2. Eliminate weak language—it puts a wall between you and your audience.

One of the most common mistakes in public speaking is the use of “weak language,” or what Marcus calls “buying time.” The key to eliminating weak language begins with a creative introduction you’ve prepared beforehand. “If you go up on stage and say, ‘Hi, thanks for having me here today. What I want to talk about is… like… so I was thinking…’ in those thirty seconds you actually said nothing,” emphasizes Marcus. The key is to engage the audience by asking the questions, or having them imagine a situation, says Marcus. “You can pull them in by saying, ‘How many people have ever thought about this?’ or ‘How many people have kids at home?’ It’s really connecting your message and making it applicable to everybody so that ears open, eyes open and it gets everybody ready to receive your messages.”

3. Get to the point!

“They also teach us how to run a meeting, which most of us found to be helpful for day-to-day application,” Marcus reveals. “How to engage certain stakeholders in the meetings but still run it efficiently—because most of us waste a true amount of energy and time in meetings.” Hoogterp, who runs the program, suggests using what he calls the “Red Box Approach” which entails using a white board to map out the plan for the meeting. As Marcus explains it, “You jot down what you’re here to discuss and where we need to arrive. Then you literally write the results in the red box,” says Marcus. “It alerts you that you’ve come to a conclusion and allows the people in the room to feel like they accomplished what they set out to do. So everybody feels that it was time well spent.”

4. Listen first and think second. Then edit and, finally, speak.

One of the techniques Marcus learned during Own the Room was the concept of listening first, thinking about your answer, editing it and then speaking. “When you do that, you find that you eliminate the weak language and you answer in a much more direct and powerful way,” Marcus says. “It’s also really good for your personal relationships.”

5. Focus on the message your body language is sending.

Body language—and the message it sends—is incredibly fundamental when it comes to public speaking. Reflecting on the speech she gave (with her legs crossed) at CISLA’s annual gala, Marcus says, “I definitely look back on it and say I could have made a stronger first impression just with my gesturing; just with my stance. Especially as a woman, to come up there with your legs crossed sends a different message.”

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