Hone your speaking skills
This is part 14 of a multi-part “More from media” series.
One spring afternoon in the late 1990s, I was at the Bass Pro Shops in Lawrenceville, Ga., talking with a young lure manufacturer and aspiring bass pro. He was about to go up on the big tank and talk before a crowd for the very first time.
He seemed a little antsy, but said he wasn’t nervous. He hadn’t rehearsed, but he had confidence. His wife and buddies were offering encouragement, telling him how great he was going to do when his turn came.
Finally it did. He was introduced and climbed up the tank to rousing applause from his supporters. He was going to talk about the lure he made and how to fish it. The bait was starting to gain traction around Lake Lanier, and there was a lot of interest in it. If ever there was a crowd of local anglers eager to learn something from a presenter, it was this group.
The young pro got into place, made a short pitch into the tank with his lure and started talking about the retrieve. He talked about several wonderful features of the bait and about how bass couldn’t seem to resist it (though the fish in the tank were ignoring it pretty well). He had good energy, smiled a lot, stammered a little, and five or six minutes after he started, he was done. He thanked the audience, got a round of applause and came back to his wife and friends with a big grin on his face.
“You were great!” she said.
“That was awesome!” they told him.
Everyone seemed impressed. I tried to smile right along with them, but something about the way I was acting must have caught his eye. He asked what I thought of his presentation.
“It was just fine,” I said.
“Seriously,” he said. “I want to learn.”
He obviously believed he had done a great job, but when someone asks me for my opinion, I figure they deserve it.
“Do you know how many times you mentioned your lure by name?” I asked.
“How many?” he said, starting to look concerned.
“Zero,” I told him. “None. I counted. And you didn’t tell the crowd where they could find you or your products after you got off the tank.”
I could tell I was letting the air out of him and his entourage. They were all nodding as they realized he had dropped the ball on some key things.
“Oh, man, you’re right,” was all he could say. But I didn’t stop. (No one calls me “Ken the Merciful.”)
“You never asked if the crowd had any questions, and you didn’t give them a call to action by suggesting that your bait is the answer right now and that they better not leave the store without a dozen.”
By the time I was finished, I think he felt like he had been hit by a truck.
What’s the lesson here? First and foremost, never ask for my opinion unless you really, really want it. Second, you are probably not as good at public speaking as you think you are, and you’re definitely not as good as your wife and friends say you are.
Some facts that might scare you
The biggest phobia in the United States is the fear of speaking before an audience. If you want to be a fishing pro and you suffer from this very common malady, you have a big problem and you need to be cured quickly or find another line of work. In 2015, there are zero successful fishing pros who are not at least adequate public speakers.
If you have to, consult with a psychiatrist to work past this issue. If you’re fortunate enough to be part of the 75 percent of Americans who do not have an unreasonable fear of speaking in front of a crowd, you’re fortunate … but that doesn’t mean you’re good.
If you want to know whether or not you’re good, don’t ask your wife or mother. They are beyond biased. You could trip on stage, drool all over your new tournament jersey and fall in the hawg trough, and they would still applaud and say you were great. If you want an opinion that counts for something and that can actually help you, you need to look elsewhere.
Actually, you need to look three places.
First, you need to look to your most intelligent, articulate, successful and uncompromising friends. I’m not talking about the mouth breathers who hang out at the Waffle House on tournament mornings. What do they know? I’m talking about the best people you know — your real friends who are not afraid to tell you the truth.
They need to see you speak, and they need to honestly assess your skills. Make them understand you want the truth and that they should pull no punches.
Second, you need to look to yourself. If you’re making a public appearance — or just practicing in the garage — record yourself and watch it. How’s your voice? Would a crowd be able to hear and understand you? How’s your posture? Did you look confident and comfortable? How’s your eye contact? Did you look fluidly around the room? How’s your content? Did your presentation have a clear beginning, middle and end? Was your inflection and pacing good? How would you compare yourself to the better speakers in our industry?
Third — and this is particularly true if you’re not getting good results or feedback from others — look to an instructor or group of like-minded individuals who are trying to improve their own speaking skills. You can find them in adult education or college courses or at Toastmasters.org. Sometimes you need to go to strangers to get better. If that’s what it takes, it’s well worth it.
You must be uncompromising in your assessment of your skills. In the real world, in front of a crowd of anglers and your pro staff managers, you will not be graded on a curve. You will be judged by the impression you make and the way you help (or fail to help) sell product.
How do you get better at fishing? Spend more time on the water.
How do you get better at public speaking? Practice.
You have to work at it to get better. Maybe you’re good; maybe you’re not. Wherever you are on the public-speaking continuum, practice will help.
If you want role models, look no further that my angling partners here at PAR. Kevin VanDam, Shaw Grigsby and Bernie Schultz are among the best. Another guy I’ve always admired as a public speaker in this industry is Hank Parker. Decades after his professional career ended, few remember what a fierce competitor he was, but if you want to see an exemplary pitch man who never seems to need a second take, look no further than Parker. He may be the very best there ever was. I once had an hour of his time at ICAST and got more than 50 minutes of usable video and audio.
Identify your favorite public speakers — pro anglers, politicians, stand-up comedians, preachers — and try to determine why you think they’re so good. What do they do that’s special or different? Learn from them.
Don’t be someone you’re not
It’s a mistake to get in front of a crowd and try to be someone else or something you are not. Don’t be a fake, and don’t act. What you want to be is the very best version of you.
You … only better.
If your grammar isn’t good, work on it. If you mumble, remember to speak clearly. If you speak in a monotone, break things up to keep the audience focused. As a public speaker, you have a lot of tools available to you — your voice, your pitch, your cadence, your inflection, eye contact, body language, visual aids and more.
You should try to appear knowledgeable and confident, honest and trustworthy. Be the person your audience wants to meet after the presentation. Be the guy they want to go fishing with and have a beer with. Smile, and remember that you’re not really up there alone. Your family and sponsors are with you and are relying on you.
If that’s too much pressure, you can always make baits in your garage.
- Your wife or mother is not the best judge of your speaking skills. Record yourself and watch over and over until you get things right.
- Consider taking classes or joining Toastmasters to improve your public speaking.
- For better or worse, few things dazzle sponsors quite like being good in front of a crowd.
Tags: audience, Bernie Schultz, body language, cadence, call to action, eye contact, Hank Parker, ICAST, inflection, Kevin VanDam, manufacturers, members, more from media, pitch, pitch man, practice, presentation, pro staff manager, product, public appearance, public speaking, Shaw Grigsby, truth, visual aids, voice