LeAnn Brazeal Of Missouri State University On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
AUTHENTICITY. It’s stressful to try to be someone you’re not, and audiences can tell when you’re not speaking authentically. Celebrities take a lot of heat, especially on social media, when they give a statement or speech that seems ghost-written by a publicist or legal team. Audiences want to know your words are yours. You don’t want to be unprofessional, but audiences like to see a little personality, maybe in the stories you tell or the way you smile at them. Be yourself. You’ll feel more comfortable, too.
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 LeAnn Brazeal.
LeAnn M. Brazeal, PhD, is an associate professor and director of public speaking in the Department of Communication at Missouri State University. She is co-author of the books Public Speaking: Essentials for Excellence and The Primary Decision: A Functional Analysis of Debates in Presidential Primaries. She’s published numerous research articles and book chapters in outlets, such as Social Media + Society, Argumentation and Advocacy and Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration. An award-winning teacher and debate coach, Brazeal writes and speaks on a variety of topics in communication, including public speaking, political communication and public relations in times of crisis and scandal. Her work on public speaking and civic engagement has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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 on a small farm just outside of Springfield, Missouri. I’m an only child and our family worked a lot, so I spent a lot of time with my nose in a book, helping with the farm or running around outside. It was pretty unusual for the time, but my mom was the parent who worked outside the home, doing data entry for a real estate company, and was an avid reader. She took me to the library every Saturday without fail and let me read whatever I could get my hands on — science, biographies, mysteries, you name it. Dad was self-employed, long before it was fashionable, and worked from home on various businesses. Since he worked from home, he was in charge of me during school breaks and summer vacation. I tagged along with him wherever he went — cattle auctions, rental properties, that kind of thing — and got to see how business worked. I also saw how you can work both with your hands and your mind, and I have a great appreciation for both. I credit those experiences with helping me think creatively about work and careers, especially in an era of side hustles and Great Resignations.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in high school, I was asked to give a public reading of a short story I’d written. The small audience, mostly parents, crowded into the school library and sat patiently on folding chairs while we kids shared our work. As far as I was concerned, the audience might as well have been a bunch of hungry lions, because I was just that terrified of public speaking. I gripped the podium as if it were a life vest and my knees were knocking together as I read my story.
Then, people in the audience started laughing — not at me, though. At my jokes! They thought I was funny! I relaxed and I began to understand that the audience and I were in this together. But that experience showed me that I needed to face my fears and learn how to do this well. So, I signed up for a public speaking class, which led me to join the speech and debate team in high school, and then again in college, and those experiences led me to where I am now.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s not any one story that sticks with me so much as an accumulation of stories over the years. I’ve found that if you hang around after you speak, you’ll almost always have someone in the audience who approaches you, often shyly, and wants to tell you his/her story. Those moments are incredible. To think that what you’ve shared resonates with others and helps them think about their own life in a different way, well, that’s pretty special. Or maybe what you’ve said gives someone else the courage to find his/her own voice. Each story is interesting to me and I always feel honored to hear them.
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?
I started out as a high school teacher, and one of our lessons was on using presentational aids in a speech. A bright and energetic young man gave a speech on pets and brought his two ferrets as presentational aids. The speech went well, but toward the end, the ferrets got the wiggles and leaped out of his arms. They zipped around the room, too fast for us to catch, and scurried under the radiators every time we got close. I went to shut the door, trying to figure out how I was going to explain a couple of loose ferrets to my bosses, and saw my assistant principal making his rounds. One of the older kids said, “Everyone sit down and look normal!” So, when the principal poked his head in the classroom, he saw a class debating current events from the newspaper. The ferrets, thankfully, stayed put. The assistant principal looked around the room, his face telling me he knew something was amiss, but he finally closed the door and went on his way. Laughter erupted. It was a close call, but it brought us together as a class.
There’s an adage in the acting world, “Don’t work with kids or animals!” Similarly, I think the lesson is to always practice your speeches with your presentational aids so you’re comfortable with them … and they don’t escape. And, in a larger sense, don’t be afraid to let someone you’re working with try something unusual. The experience may turn out better than you expect.
None of us can 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?
Beyond my family, my high school speech and debate teacher was critical in helping me get where I am today. When I started her class, I was kind of a nervous wreck. I was a shy kid and sure I would fail. My first speech was on the first day of class. I thought, “What kind of teacher does that?” It was just an introduction, but when my turn came, I could barely remember my own name. I fiddled with my clothes and could hardly look at the class. I probably ran back to my seat when I was finished. I don’t remember much, but I do know it was the longest 30 seconds of my life. I was sure I was going to fail this class. But my teacher saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. She had high expectations, but also offered practical advice and encouragement. She wouldn’t let me give up when I was struggling to succeed and helped me develop a growth mindset. Without her, I would not be where I am today.
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?
A lot of people think public speaking skill is something you’re either born with or you’re not, and that’s a myth. Public speaking is a skill that you can learn and develop. Like sports or art or music, you have to be willing to practice and push yourself to become better. Even if you’re an introvert, you can become a fantastic public speaker. I was terribly shy as a young person, so if I can do it, anyone can.
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?
I do a lot of teaching and coaching these days, and my focus is on transformation. I love to see people grow more confident and do what they thought was impossible. Public speaking terrifies people. But if you can teach people how to do the thing they thought they could never do, you’ve opened up the world for them. Then, they can go out there and do so much more.
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 excited to start working on my new book about the ways individuals and organizations speak publicly about scandals and crisis. There seems to be new examples every day. I’ll also be revising my book on public speaking fairly soon.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.”
I read this in a book as a child, but it resonates with me so much more as an adult. I’ve had a few health issues over the years that have set me back, and through those I’ve learned how to carve out time for myself without giving up on my goals. It’s hard when you’re used to going at full steam all the time, but sometimes your body knows what you need better than you do. Just don’t give up.
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. AUTHENTICITY. It’s stressful to try to be someone you’re not, and audiences can tell when you’re not speaking authentically. Celebrities take a lot of heat, especially on social media, when they give a statement or speech that seems ghost-written by a publicist or legal team. Audiences want to know your words are yours. You don’t want to be unprofessional, but audiences like to see a little personality, maybe in the stories you tell or the way you smile at them. Be yourself. You’ll feel more comfortable, too.
2. CONVERSATIONAL STYLE. In other words, talk with your audience, not at them. Great public speaking is conversational. There was a time when serious, formal speeches ruled the day, but audiences today want to feel a connection with you. They’ll be a lot more receptive to your message and you’ll feel more relaxed when delivering it. This is Oprah’s superpower.
3. APPROPRIATE PRACTICE. This is my most-resisted piece of advice. Inexperienced speakers want to “go over” a speech in their heads to prepare. But you wouldn’t ask a football team to practice by going through plays in their head, would you? Public speaking has a physical component and getting on your feet helps you practice your speech the same way you’ll be giving it. It also gives you a chance to practice gestures, eye contact and other aspects of body language.
4. PASSON FOR YOUR TOPIC. Often, you’ll see a person light up when he/she is talking about a favorite hobby or a TV show. Speaking about something we care about gives us an “enthusiasm advantage” that draws audiences in and entices them to listen. It also inspires us as speakers to prepare well for the sake of our message. Even if you don’t choose your own topic, it helps to find some aspect of it that grabs your interest.
5. CONTENT YOU’RE PROUD TO SHARE. Do your legwork ahead of time. Research well, organize your thoughts, and bring in facts, examples, stories and expert analysis to support your ideas. Once you have a foundation, craft a speech that will leave your audience on the edge of their seats. Invite them to solve a mystery, take a trip or make the world a better place with you. Creativity matters. When you have content you feel good about, you will be more confident and enjoy sharing it with your audience.
As you know, many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?
By far, the best piece of advice is practice, practice, practice. Practice on your feet, in front of a mirror. Practice with your slide deck or other presentational aids. Practice until you are comfortable with both the content and your delivery. People like to avoid what they’re afraid of, so the most anxious speakers are the least likely to practice. But stand up and face that fear, and it will make your whole experience better.
Also, seek opportunities to speak. YouTubers will tell you that your first few videos aren’t going to be very good, but you have to keep making them to improve. Public speaking is the same way. Offer to speak to small, friendly groups and consider asking for feedback afterward. Organizations like Toastmasters can also offer opportunities to speak often. Take a class or bring on a coach.
Finally, focus on your message. If you focus too much on your audience, it’s easy to get inside your own head and overanalyze everything they do: “Am I boring? Are they falling asleep? Do they hate me?” To stop that internal monologue, focus on the message you’re trying to covey rather than the audience’s reaction.
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?
I would love to see a movement where people listen more. Public speaking is just one part of the communication process. The other part involves the audience listening with an open mind, processing the information and offering feedback. I think the world would be a much better place if we were better equipped to listen to one another, really listen, and see where others are coming from. That could open up space for dialogue. On some things we’ll never agree, but, in spite of everything, I believe we have more common ground than it appears.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
@lbrazeal on Twitter.
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!
I’d love to visit with the cast of Critical Role, especially creative director Marisha Ray. They’re a group of voice actors who started out playing Dungeons and Dragons and have built their game into a wildly successful worldwide transmedia company with a critically acclaimed new series on Amazon Prime.
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!