Speaking and leadership mastery begins with the basics

A couple of months ago I decided to start a new daily habit of spending at least one hour upskilling myself. Given my interest in strategy and data analysis, I decided to become an Excel superuser. Currently, I would classify myself as an advanced Excel user, with my biggest accomplishment so far being building data visualisation dashboards used for strategic planning and decision making. While I initially set my sights on advanced Skillshare courses covering Visual Basics programming. I instead opted to begin with the basics. The first course I took was on keyboard shortcuts, and the second on basic Excel formula structure.

In the end, these two basic courses taught me concepts and tools that I had never known existed in over 15 years of using Excel.

How we sometimes bypass the basics

We all tend to learn best by doing what we are trying to learn and practising what we learn in real-time. While this approach is extremely effective, it nevertheless has one major flaw. If we are not doing the learning process in a structured environment, we likely will not be learning things in any particular order. Instead, we will learn about them as they come to us and as we practice them. After taking the courses I mentioned above, I realised that I had never received any structured training on Excel and only learnt the software “on the job”.

For example, friends or colleagues tell me about a formula I could use. Curiosity prompted me to search for ways, to sum totals according to labels and taught me about IF and SUMIF functions. I learnt a lot via this approach but in a very unstructured way. Additionally, I was not always able to reproduce everything I learnt. Since I focused on the “what” and not the “how” of the particular formula I needed. I half knew some powerful logic-based formulas which could power my analyses. But I remained unaware that easy time-saving keyboard shortcuts existed and I did not even know how to properly reproduce formulas across a sheet.

Learning to read means mastering the alphabet. This is even more true if one is looking to learn a new language. Speakers and leaders must master the basics and the alphabet of speaking and leadership too!

Learning by doing “on the job” can often lead to this unless a structure is in place to support people and accompany them in their learning journey. The same story happens to many people who begin their public speaking or leadership journey. They may, for example, learn about the importance of body language or vocal variety by observing others. But they won’t find out how every speech should have an objective until it is either pointed out to them or until they deliver a speech that fails to connect with their audiences.

Why mastering the basics matter

Fundamental skills and knowledge in any field is the foundation on which everything is later built. Going back to my earlier example about Excel, knowing the basic structure of a formula enables one to easily reuse and reproduce it many times. Knowing this structure saves a lot of time and replaces possible sources of errors with a system that consistently produces quality outputs. Consistency is an underrated trait in public speaking and leadership. A strong argument exists that delivering ten good speeches, is better than delivering one great speech and nine average ones. Similarly, a leader who consistently master one core aspect of leadership. For example, execution and turning a vision into reality will end up far more impactful than someone who imperfectly masters inspiring others or long-range leadership tasks, which are not essential to its role.

Beyond consistency, we must remember that it is important to walk before we can run. This is a piece of feedback that I received many times in the past, and it made me uncomfortable at first. Yet, it is a mistake that many people make nowadays, especially when it comes to public speaking. The widespread availability of TED talks and other high-profile speeches online can provide a skewed idea of what public speaking is. While the body language, vocal variety and fantastic visual aids that TED speakers use often catch the eye. It is easy to overlook that the basis of what makes these speeches great is that they have a message and a clear purpose. Everything else is built around that to support said purpose and objective.

“I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times.”

Bruce Lee

To paraphrase the quote above, mastering one basic kick consistently, is more effective than imperfectly knowing thousands of advanced moves. What’s more, one needs to know how to do a basic kick well before attempting to do advance moves.

Here are the basics that speakers and leaders must master

Interestingly, both speakers and leaders share some core basic skills in common. Here is my list of the top three basics to master.

  • Having a clear sense of purpose – Purpose is power both in public speaking and in leadership. A speech without a purpose will achieve nothing and leave its audience wondering what it was all about. A leader without a purpose is like a plane flying around in circles with no destination. When speaking and leading ask yourself, what are you trying to achieve, and why it should matter to your audience and those you lead.
What is your goal as a speaker? What is your goal as a leader? These questions seem basic and even common sense. However, many people never ask them in the first place and fail to make an impact as a result!
  • Looking outwards towards others – By this I mean that both public speaking and leading aren’t about the speaker and the leader but others. A speech is delivered to an audience, which can be as large as we want it to be. A leader is leading a group of people which can potentially be very large. In both instances, we are not speaking or leading for ourselves, but instead for others. Ignore the needs of your audience or of the people you lead at your perils. The final verdict on whether you are a good speaker or a good leader belongs to others and not to you!
  • Creating movement – A good speech will take an audience on a journey, from a beginning to its conclusion with twists and turns in between. This is why storytelling is such a powerful tool for speakers and leaders alike. Storytelling for leaders comes with a twist though, as you the leader are the hero of the story, and the one who will impact its ending. The fact that leadership is about moving towards a destination, is one of the reasons why leaders should lead from the front. To create movement as a speaker or leader ask yourself, where are you looking to go with your speech, where are you looking to bring your group?

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