One of the most persistent myths is the notion that inspiring leaders who are great in front of an audience are naturally gifted speakers. It’s quite the opposite. Nobody’s been born holding a PowerPoint clicker in their hand. Leaders who are “gifted” in the art of delivering presentations worked at it really, really hard over many, many years. Most of us see the end result but we don’t see what it took to get there. This is true of business leaders as well as many leaders on the world stage.
Nothing ever comes easy. Great public speakers look effortless because they put a lot of effort into being great.“Up until the age of 20, I was absolutely unable to speak in public,” says billionaire Warren Buffett in the new book Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal. “Just the thought of it made my physically ill.” When he started his first job selling securities Buffett realized that public speaking skills were a requirement for success. He signed up for a Dale Carnegie course. Warren Buffett considers his Dale Carnegie diploma the most important degree he has. “I don’t have my diploma from the University of Nebraska hanging on my office wall, and I don’t have my diploma from Columbia up there either—but I do have my Dale Carnegie graduation certificate proudly displayed.”
Buffett didn’t end his public speaking training after the course finished. He immediately signed on to teach a class at the University of Omaha. “I knew that if I did not speak in front of people quickly I would lapse back to where I’d started.” According to Buffett, learning to be a better public speaker “certainly had the biggest impact on my subsequent success.”
For example, in 1964 Senator Barry Goldwater lost the presidential election in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson. Bad news for Goldwater turned out to be good news for one up and coming speaker: Ronald Reagan. According to H.W. Brands in the new biography, Reagan: The Life, one nationally televised speech, which Reagan gave in support of Goldwater, propelled Reagan to the top of the party. After the speech, “Many Republicans concluded that their party had nominated the wrong man,” writes Brands.
While Reagan may have been surprised at his good fortune, Brands makes the argument that Reagan wasn’t unprepared. “He had been honing his broadcast skills since his days in radio, and all those talks for GE had served like a long off-Broadway run before a main-stage premier.” Brands is referring to the eight years that Reagan spent as host of General Electric GE -0.22% Theater on television. As part of his contract he toured forty states, giving speeches to a combined 250,000 employees at 139 GE plants across the country, honing and refining his presentations with every speech. In fact Reagan was still unsteady in his speech at the Goldwater convention. Brands writes that Reagan was ‘awkward’ until mid-way through the speech when the crowd rose up and applauded a line. “Their encouragement calmed Reagan down.”
Reagan was elected Governor of California two years later in 1966. Most of us know Reagan as “The great communicator” for his inspiring speeches during his presidency, but few people know that Reagan became great only after years and years of speaking in front of an audience.
There are two lessons to take away from the careers of Buffett and Reagan. First, take every opportunity to give a presentation in front of an audience, no matter how small. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Second, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll never be a great speaker simply because you might feel uncomfortable today. I’ve met plenty of leaders who were not only uncomfortable—they were downright terrified of public speaking at one point in their lives. Today they’re considered among the world’s most inspiring speakers. You have the same potential. Don’t talk yourself out of it.