I’ve written a number of times on the secrets for professional public speaking success. But more recently, I’ve started thinking about the personal qualities that are important for success in this challenging field. The life of a public speaker is a difficult one – not as difficult as coal mining, perhaps, but difficult nonetheless in its own way – and certain characteristics are important if you’re not going to be miserable in the life you lead. Five in particular seem to me to be most important in the successful speakers I’ve observed over the years as a coach. What’s your experience? What has stood you in good stead – or the contrary, has gotten in the way for you?
1.Emotional resilience. I think the most important characteristic is perhaps emotional toughness, or resilience. Not every audience is going to love you, and not every speech is going to be a success. But if you can’t bounce back from the difficult occasions, and take the successes in stride without becoming overly confident, you’re going to have a rocky ride indeed.
2.Determination. Closely related to resilience is the ability to stick to it without giving up, even if things don’t go your way at first. It takes considerable effort and time to develop a successful public speaking career, and anyone who expects quick results and easy wins is almost certainly bound for disappointment. Hanging in there – without being delusional – is one of the emotional success factors.
3.Conscientiousness. Speakers need to sweat the details, from the arcana of their area of specialty to the little moments of technical and performance felicity that make the difference between OK and great. And caring for all the people who help you along the way is important too. Successful public speaking is all about the little stuff and the big stuff, both.
4.Control. Great speakers learn to control the moment, to rise to the occasion, and to seize the opportunity for an effective ad lib when it arises. It’s all about understanding the ebb and flow of human emotion and engagement, and knowing when to control that flow and when to ride it.
5.Optimism. Of course speakers must be optimists. There are so many ways that a life on the road, a life of endless auditions in front of new audiences every night, a life of the ups and downs of venues and technical issues and unexpected delays and problems – all of it can chip away at the most durable of human psyches. Optimism is a must.
My own allotment of these qualities varies –even on good days – so I talk about these qualities not because I believe I’ve mastered them, but because I’ve seen their mix in the speakers I’ve coached over the years, and seen what can hold a speaker back from success – or propel them to opportunity after opportunity. When someone asks me if I think they have what it takes to become a successful speaker, we usually start the discussion because the talent and insight are there. What separates the winners from the rest in the end is these qualities, plus one more: a willingness to work harder than the rest, for longer than everyone else.
What are the emotional qualities you see as essential to your success and the successes you’ve observed?