Charles F. Coleman Jr. On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine
15 min readApr 7, 2022

--

… Finally, don’t be afraid to mess up! We talk everyday…all the time…in front of actual human beings! If you normalize this by reminding yourself that this is something you always do, you won’t be as preoccupied with thinking about the size of the crowd or the nature of the occasion. Know that this is something that you’ve been doing more than you realize. So even if you do mess up on a word, you’re more than capable of rebounding and adjusting. It’s often our fear of a mistake that keeps us stuck. When you aren’t focused on trying to avoid making a mistake, you can focus on delivering good content.

At some point in our lives, many of us will have to give a talk to a large group of people. What does it take to be a highly effective public speaker? How can you improve your public speaking skills? How can you overcome a fear of speaking in public? What does it take to give a very interesting and engaging public talk? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker” we are talking to successful and effective public speakers to share insights and stories from their experience. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Charles F. Coleman Jr.

Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a Civil Rights Attorney who specializing in Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) law, human resources solutions, and the support of diversity and inclusion efforts in the workforce. Charles began his legal career as a prosecutor in the Kings County (Brooklyn, NY) District Attorney’s Office. He later repositioned his legal career to focus on litigation of EEO law as well as championing diversity and inclusion initiatives in the corporate workplace. Charles’ work has been featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Rolling Out, and he has appeared on CNN, HLN, Sirius XM, BET, The Young Turks, and The Tamron Hall Show. He has led workshops for top tier brands such as Viacom, MTV Entertainment Networks, the NFL, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, SAP Concur, PepsiCo and organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, National Association of Black Journalists, Harvard University School of Law, Penn State University, and the University of Connecticut. Currently, Charles is a Legal Analyst for MSNBC.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Queens, NY in a household with my mom and younger sister. My mom and dad divorced when I was young, but my dad was still around. Both of my parents have multiple degrees, so education and achievement were paramount. For me, school came easily, so all I really wanted to do was play basketball and rap. As a young man, I developed a love affair with words early on. That is probably where my penchant for public speaking began. Rapping in front of groups, large and small, was what opened me up to public speaking. I made it a personal competition. Either I was going to overwhelm the crowd and they were going to love me, or I was going to be intimated by the crowd and they were going to beat me. Well, I am not easily intimated.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m a huge hip-hop fan. Being from Queens, Nas is by far my favorite rapper. It was a Nas song, at 16-years old that cemented my career path. I remember as a kid, my mother would make my sister and me sit down every year to watch PBS’ Eyes on the Prize series about the civil rights movement. This laid the foundation for my reverence for people in that space who had made those sacrifices. They were my comic book heroes, my Avengers, if you will. But it was Nas and his lyrics that brought it all together for me and made it click. That’s when I realized “this is what I was meant to do and how I was meant to do it differently.”

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

It was the first time that I got called to do national television back in 2015 or 2016. I had been emailing producers trying to get booked. No one would respond. All my emails just went ignored. I pitched myself to them repeatedly to no avail. I was also writing at the time and submitting to different online outlets. Those outlets were regularly publishing my work. Out of nowhere, a producer from a major cable news network (CNN) emailed me about a piece I had written. At the time I got the email, I wasn’t thinking about getting on television despite how many pitches I had sent in previously. I had knocked so many times on that door to no answer that I had almost given up. Then…BAM! The door opened and beckoned me in. Well, I went on and rocked it. The producers started having me on much more regularly after that.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

To continue with the above story about pitching, it was several weeks later when I realized that the producer who I had been emailing all these years was the same one who booked me for my first appearance. I thought she realized it was me after I had literally been emailing her for years. I made a joke about “finally” breaking through to her inbox and the joke fell flat. I didn’t know or understand that it was poor form to mention to a producer that they never responded to you. It’s one of those weird things about tv and media that no one ever tells you: “if someone ignores your pitch, don’t take it personally.” Doesn’t make much sense but it is a real thing. Anyway, once I got over the embarrassment of my media snafu, I realized that a lot of what I was dealing with was connected to timing. Be patient and keep working. What’s meant for you will find you when you are ready.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people. I think for me, I pay homage to Vernon Jordan. He was a mentor to me and an austere figure in civil rights. The time that he spent to give advice, share a laugh, or help me learn through being transparent about his own experiences was such a huge piece in helping me to develop. Throughout law school and early in my professional career, I would go to his office and literally just sit while he worked, had meetings, etc. I learned so much just being a fly on the wall. It gave me the confidence to sit in rooms with influential and important people and know how to carry myself. That goes a long way when I’m on television on panels with other people who are well known and influential on a national level. It has helped me to understand that I belong but also how to navigate those spaces confidently with aplomb.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Until you are prepared to deal with failure, you aren’t ready to achieve success. Everything is a process, and failure is part of it. Consider your favorite action movie. If the hero immediately triumphed over every challenge and villain and didn’t struggle, how interesting of a story would that be? Not very. It is the challenge and obstacles that they overcome which make the journey of the story so rewarding. But without failure at some level, it wouldn’t be as interesting. So, the failure you are bound to experience at different points are an important part of your journey. Embrace that but keep going. It will make the successes even sweeter.

What drives you to get up everyday and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?

For me it is the notion of black brilliance. Plain and simple. It’s a mantra of mine that I have used for years. I believe that the brilliance and potential which exists in all of us is limitless, but that we must embrace it. It’s on my clothes, it’s on my email signature, it’s anywhere I can fit those two words: black brilliance. So, when I am in any environment it is my goal to promote and empower through black brilliance so that people understand brilliance comes in many different forms and doesn’t have to necessarily look or feel a certain way. So that is what I try to show in the various environments where I speak: black brilliance.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

I’m always working on something but right now the biggest projects I’m engaged in all relate to my writing. I have for many years wanted to write a book and have begun that process with an agent, etc. It’s different and challenging but that is a big focal point for me now. Once that is released, I will continue to engage my platform in ways that display what black brilliance is all about and help build community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Wow. I have so many. This is a hard one but if I had to choose one, it has to be “Try? There is no try. Do, or Do Not. But there is no try.” It’s a quote from Yoda in Episode V and I am HUGE STARWARS fan. I remember my sister giving me her version of this quote, “Either you’re gonna do it, or you’re not”, during a challenging period in my life and it still resonates to this day. Every decision, every choice, every difficult challenge we have in front of us boils down to this very premise: either you’re going to do it or you’re not. People often confuse the notion of trying with being sufficient. The danger there is that trying doesn’t always invoke a sincere effort. Some people just want to be able to say “Well, I tried.” I’d rather be one who says “Well, I did.”

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Know Your Audience.

The first and most important rule in public speaking is knowing and understanding who you are talking to. That is always going to inform your voice, your choice of words, and what you will and will not say. Sometimes I do as much research on the organization or audience and its members or target audience as I do on the topic itself. It will really help you as a public speaker because you will have a better sense on what will land better with a particular crowd.

Story: As a former prosecutor I used to always evaluate the people who were put on my juries. I could always tell if I had a few jurors who were church go’ers and that would allow me to use subtle Biblical references in my openings or closings. That was strategic because I knew that even if the entire jury didn’t get it, they would and that would be enough to potentially create an affinity to me in ways that could be advantageous because they would see something in me and them as being familiar and similar. Understanding who was in my audience was always key in how I crafted my remarks.

2. Know Your Material.

Another tip that I can’t stress enough is know your material. The more comfortable you are with a topic, the more likely it is that you will feel comfortable talking about the topic. When you’re unsure about a certain element of something you’re speaking on, it will show. Your confidence just isn’t the same and no matter how much you try to fake it; your audience will know the difference. If you don’t know your topic well, spend more time researching to understand it. You can’t fake comfort in public speaking.

Story: When I do legal round ups on MSNBC programs, I can be asked about multiple cases at one time. This means I’ve got to do homework. I must read cases, articles, and anything I can get my hands on in order to understand the depths of a story and to make sure that the information I give out is both proper and legally sound. I don’t know what I will be asked so I must be prepared for a variety of things. Being a professional oftentimes means I must cut hanging out short or not watch my favorite show because I’m doing homework. But there is no substitution for good preparation.

3. Know Your Voice.

Watch others who have different styles speak to help perfect your craft. It will give you ideas on how to use different words devices, styles, or vocal inflections to make your presentations more impactful. Sometimes you may want to be more conversational, sometimes you may want to be bold and powerful, sometimes you may want to seem authoritative. In any event, you must master what your voice is a speaker. You must know your baseline in terms of style is and then everything flows from there. Once you understand your voice, you can pick up tricks from everywhere without worry about sounding like everyone else. Knowing your voice will ensure that you are able to develop your own style but also stand out.

Story: Because I grew up in church, I was exposed to the black preacher, which is a very distinct style of speaking. Powerful, firey, black preachers can captivate an audience’s attention and in the course of a sermon will deftly employ a bevy of tools to effectively reach their audiences. When I was a young man — and my family still teases me about this — I would run through my grandmother’s house reciting scripture and imitating what I had seen the preachers in church do. Most of my family would roll their eyes because they thought I was a ham. Even though they knew I wasn’t mocking the preachers or making fun, they also weren’t thrilled that I was now turning my grandmother’s house into 24hour all day church. But my grandmother loved it and so I kept doing it! To this day, I can have a small bit of minister influence when I speak on certain topics and in front of certain crowds. That’s one of the ways I began to find my voice.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Mess Up.

Finally, don’t be afraid to mess up! We talk everyday…all the time…in front of actual human beings! If you normalize this by reminding yourself that this is something you always do, you won’t be as preoccupied with thinking about the size of the crowd or the nature of the occasion. Know that this is something that you’ve been doing more than you realize. So even if you do mess up on a word, you’re more than capable of rebounding and adjusting. It’s often our fear of a mistake that keeps us stuck. When you aren’t focused on trying to avoid making a mistake, you can focus on delivering good content.

5. Be A Speaker You Would Want to Listen To.

This tip I can sum up using the “3 B’s” my mother taught me as my first public speaking coach: ‘Be Brief. Be Interesting. Be Gone’. Before you give a talk to someone, consider the following simple question: “Would I want to sit and listen to me?” If you think you would, then focus on sharpening the reasons why so that you are even more dynamic. If you’re not sure or don’t think so, then figure out what it is that is missing or needs to be different and change it! We have all sat through speeches that were boring, too long, and uninspiring. Challenge yourself to take an angle on a topic or give some advice that hasn’t already been explored or exhausted. It’s as much about the work you do thinking about what you want to say and having something worthwhile to listen to as it is about your delivery.

Story: Student groups are among the most challenging to deal with here. They are usually not very interested en masse and have heard every cliché around being determined, and not giving up, etc. One of my favorite things to do is to have them time me in terms of keeping my promise to be brief. I also will try and get one or two names and stories that I can incorporate into my remarks to make my talks more engaging and personable. This is to counteract the notion of another boring speech for them and give them something to listen for i.e., “is he going to call my name next?” It’s how you neutralize what is a natural apathy in many young audiences.

As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?

There’s no substitute for practice. That’s just it. Practice! Practice! Practice! It won’t make you perfect, but it will bring improvement. A lot of times the more you get used to hearing your own voice speak, the more natural it will feel (and sound) when it’s time to deliver. Your brain is trained to relax when it senses things that is familiar with (songs, places, people, etc.). To reduce the anxiety of public speaking, the more you practice, the more your brain becomes familiar with the sound of your voice in speaker mode and the words you will be saying during your speech and how they sound. This way when you begin during your actual speech, you will not have the same levels of anxiety or nervousness triggered because your brain will recognize them as familiar. So, practice. You can practice around others; you can practice alone. I spend more time walking around my house speaking out loud to myself in preparation than I do to anyone else. The process normalizes the speaking to me in a way that keeps me from getting too nervous when it’s time to talk.

Before television appearances, I think of the questions I would ask myself if I were conducting an interview on the topic. Most people don’t know this but when you’re interviewed on camera, you are hearing the questions for the first time the same as the audience. So, you don’t know what you will be asked, which makes preparation particularly challenging. That’s why practice for me requires thinking about what someone could ask me and how I would choose to answer it.

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

At my core, my people are my passion. I am someone who has a love for black people that is incredibly deep. My passion for us has come with an understanding that so much of what we see, and experience is rooted in anti-blackness. It has done so much in many ways that has been destructive to us and how we think. My biggest inspiration, then, would be to push us to truly see the beauty in ourselves, and embrace that without validation from the perceived majority. In the ideal sense, I would use my influence to re-engage black people in a love affair with ourselves in a way that would be self-validating. I truly believe with that sort of confidence we are impossible to hold back.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Probably for me it would be Shannon Sharpe. He has carved out a unique lane as a public speaker with a style that most people would have said was not going to be successful. But he’s made it work. I’d love to talk to him as we both have Southern roots (he, more so than me), are HBCU alumni and supporters, and are fitness conscious. Plus, I think he’s the only guy on tv where both of us are as consistently well-dressed each time we are on camera.

If not him, it would probably be Donald Glover. He has shown himself to be a savant in not allowing folks to box him in or keep in one lane. As a creative, it can be hard not to be defined by one singular thing. From music to acting, and all points in between, he has really done well not limiting himself in that regard. It has allowed his creativity to really be seen in different facets. And I believe that’s dope.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

I am! And I love interacting with my followers. You can find me on Facebook and LinkedIn at Charles F. Coleman Jr., on Instagram at @CFC40_Official, and on Twitter @CFColemanJr.

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

--

--

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market