Melanie Hicks Of Inked Elephant Publishing House On The 5 Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Public Speaker

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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Practice but not too much. Practice is a key element to giving a quality presentation. But so is spontaneity and connection. If we practice to a point where we become robotic in our delivery, we will lose the energy and the connection with the audience will be lost.

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 Melanie Hicks.

Dr. Hicks is an empathy driven leader with more than two decades of experience in workforce, education and nonprofits. Focused on the areas of human centered leadership, strategic planning, employee engagement and organizational culture, Dr. Hicks has worked with hundreds of clients over the course of her career including small to midsized companies, education institutions and nonprofit organizations.

Dr. Hicks is the author of the upcoming book Incongruent; Travel, Trauma, Transformation. Writing her first book at 10 years old, she has now been published in numerous magazines and websites including Forbes.com, Humanity Wine Co., The District, Doctor’s Life, Journal for Research Administration and Moc Ideja, a grassroots policy manual for lawmakers in Bosnia funded by the US Department of State.

Dr. Hicks holds a doctorate from the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Miami and bachelors in Organizational Communications from the University of Central Florida. She is also a SHRM Senior Certified Professional.

In addition to her formal degrees, Dr. Hicks also holds two Diversity, Equity and Inclusion certifications and a lean six sigma yellow belt from the University of South Florida. As well as a Business Analytics certificate from Harvard Business School.

Her awards include the Rod Rose Paper of the year award for the Journal of Research Administration, the Joyce Keller Volunteer of the Year Award, the Florence Bayuk Scholarship for academic excellence; the University of Miami Outstanding Scholastic and Public Service Achievement Award.

Dr. Hicks formerly served as the Vice President, Education Solutions Group at MGT Consulting where she leads business development for PK12, Higher Education and Education Transformation Practice areas. Prior to joining MGT, Dr. Hicks served as Assistant Provost at the University of Tampa where she created UT’s first Office of Sponsored Programs and oversaw the University’s 52 department budgets, and all grants and contracts. She also taught courses in Social Entrepreneurship, Environmental Policy, Public Private Partnerships, among others.

Prior to joining the University of Tampa team, she served as the Director of Research for the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, an advocacy organization, and concurrently as the Managing Director of the Florida Independent College Fund, a 501c3 foundation. While at ICUF/FICF she implemented a four‐prong system for federal and state grant funding applications resulting in enhanced collaborative partnerships and led ICUF’s governmental affairs research for advocacy in Tallahassee and Washington, DC.

Dr. Hicks began her career as the Aide to Mayor of Tallahassee, a special projects coordinator with the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability and as an adjunct professor of Public Administration for Florida State University and Barry University.

Outside of her professional activities, her hobbies include writing, paddle boarding, biking, hiking, and is a certified yoga instructor. She also enjoys spending time with her husband Randy, stepdaughter, Lauren, and her fur babies, Eva & Molly.

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 had a fantastic childhood. I grew up in a small, middle-class, beach town in northern Florida. It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone. Where multigenerational families were the norm. Where kids went off to college only to return to rinse and repeat the family legacy.

To look at me you would believe I am a walking carbon copy of my mother, a true mini-me. But to know me is to know I have my father’s stubborn nature and love of solitude. My father a career police officer, my mother a career teacher, we were the Webster definition of middle-class Americana. My brother joined the Marines when I was three years old, and my earliest memory of him was a family visit when I was thirteen.

Good fathers are always perceived as the backbone of the family, and mine was no exception. Stern, strong, quiet, and endlessly organized, he was the planner of great summer adventures that are still the most important parts of my childhood. If my father taught me to have a plan, my mother taught me to toss it out. Never-ending energy, generosity of spirit, and laughter that echoes long after it ends — these are the legacies of my mother. It was her influence that had our family pulled over on the side of a mountain in Colorado so I could touch — not just see — my first patch of snow. From my father, I was taught integrity, discipline, and hard work. From my mother, kindness, openheartedness, fearlessness, and football.

Love was abundant in our home and community. It overflowed daily with both words and acts of kindness from my mother and grandmother. My homelife held the kind of stability and care that so many can only dream of. We were far from monetarily rich, but what we lacked in finances was made up in love.

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

Artistically talented as a dancer and singer, I spent my younger years in dance, theatre and voice lessons. I was ironically, unequivocally shy when out of a stage spotlight. But after first stepping onto a stage at age 3, I was hooked. And I have spent my life chasing stages ever since.

Over my career the look of those stages has varied. As a speechwriter and public policy advocate in my early career, to a professor and education consultant, to eventually a writer, workforce coach and motivational speaker. For me the venue or topic never mattered, it was about using my authentic voice. Sharing with others some version of how I saw the world, and hoping that lens helped them see the world just a bit different as well.

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 have a natural talent for improv, to “wing it” so to speak. More often than not, this strategy works just fine for me, but every so often, it is my downfall. Early in my career I was asked to be the Master of Ceremonies for an event where my boss, the Mayor, would be a keynote. Doing far less audience research than I should have, I planned an entire opening monologue which I envisioned would be both humorous and inspirational. Upon arriving at the event, I realized the audience was international dignitaries from our Sister City, none of my humor or local community references would be understood. I spent the 30 minutes before I went on frantically rewriting everything, I had planned on saying. The speech, while not a disaster, was certainly not prize-worthy. It was a lesson I will never forget. Knowing your audience is the absolute most important thing about being on stage. I might can “wing” the content but only if I know who will receive it.

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?

I simply can’t narrow to one. I have had two mentors in my life that were absolutely life changing; Bob O’Leary and Fred Seamon.

The humblest man I have ever known, Robert O’Leary, is a tower of wisdom, experience, and grace. A Georgetown graduate, he began his career working on Capitol Hill on initiatives of societal importance like supporting the work of the National Organization for Women and the Equal Rights Amendment. Back in his home state of Michigan, he was the chief deputy director of the Commerce Department and later served as Governor Blanchard’s deputy chief of staff and the president of the Michigan Accident Fund. Recruited to Florida by Governor Lawton Chiles, his humility and authenticity made him a masterful change agent and the reinvention and restructuring guru of the Executive Staff. He was responsible for closing the Commerce Department, restructuring the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, creating Enterprise Florida and Workforce Florida, Redesigning the Labor Department, merging the Departments of Administration and General Services into DMS, and much more. But if you were to ask him, he’d simply say he was a guy in a closet office under the stairs.

I met Bob in in 2005 on my first day at ICUF. For our introductory first six hours, we sat in the glowing florescent light of the dreary office building on Monroe Street while he painstakingly walked me through the last fifteen years of ICUF policy stances, and I incessantly flipped a highlighter out of boredom and general fidgeting.

As the years ticked by, Bob and I developed a natural rhythm of working together. He was the big idea man; I was the practical implementation specialist. He would boldly devise plans well ahead of their time, and I would work tirelessly to translate those plans into a language to gain buy-in. He would think nothing of it if it were ignored while I would reel from perceived rejection. He would impart knowledge, and I would eagerly push the envelope. He would humbly push all the credit my way while we both knew I could never have completed the project without his guidance. His presence in my life loomed large both at work and in the chaos of my second marriage. I never felt judged, even when I failed, no matter which arena. We simply assessed the damaged, gathered the lessons to be learned, and focused on the next move.

As a big-picture thinker and future-focused leader, Bob was always ahead of the curve. He conceived problems and their subsequent solutions before others even sounded the alarm. His words and actions provided a powerful example of forging through doubtful voices of others and instead remaining steadfast toward the greater good ahead. Throughout my career, I have harkened back to this sentiment often. Work hard for what you believe in, even when no one appreciates it. They will eventually. Leaders often must perform the hard work of digging the trenches of new ideas, processes, or paths so that others may follow. In the end, if your desire is to leave this world a better place, then you dig, not with resentment of the extra work but with great exhilaration and pride, for you alone can later stand on the bank and revel in the water that flows behind.

While we stayed in touch after I moved from Tallahassee to Tampa, a decade later I still mourn the loss of our daily interaction. The six years we worked directly together did as much to mold my perception of life as any other chapter. He taught me to be steadfast but humble; to be fearless but grounded; to believe in what is possible, even if no one else does.

There is a distinct shift in the energy of the room when Dr. Fred Seamon walks in. It is unclear if it is his mile-wide smile or the warmth in which he greets everyone he meets like an old friend. Either way, Fred is a legend to anyone who has the pleasure of knowing him.

He began his career in late 1960s in the juvenile court system, and over fifty years later, he is still fighting for equality and diversity. While on the graduate faculty at Florida State University (FSU) and at the Pepper Institute on Aging, he conducted several major research studies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in public employment and social and economic disparities among minority elderly populations. His experience includes providing diversity training to law enforcement personnel via the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Senior Leadership Program, the Florida Department of Highway Safety Management Fellows Program, and the Department of Insurance Executive Institute. He was recently an invited participant in the White House Conference Call for African American Stakeholders on COVID-19 and the CARES Act, April 2020.

Fred and I first crossed paths in 2002 when I arrived in Tallahassee as a bubbly doctoral student at Florida State. Active in the campus and broader community, his reputation of kindness-driven leadership proceeded him. However, it was more than a decade later that his impact on my life truly began. In 2018, I joined the consulting firm where he was a legacy employee. While the firm turned into a wilder ride than either of us ever imagined, Fred’s steady guidance was a constant calm I desperately needed. Even after I left the firm, his regular check-ins would bring a smile to my heart knowing I was cared for and cheered on.

All of Fred’s accomplishments pale in comparison to the living, breathing example of leadership he is as a man. He is the first to say yes to any opportunity that will add value to those he cares for, be that his family, company, community, or church. He will never ask of you what he will not do himself. He is the cheerful rally to a team that is down. He is the insightful influencer in times of controversy. And he is a voice of reason during times of distress.

Upon seeking his steady council for a decision weighing heavy on my heart, he was all too willing to put aside his busy schedule to listen, comfort, and reflect. The lessons he shared were powerful reminders. Be confident in the value you add. Set and keep limits on what you can healthily give of yourself. Be willing to walk away from what doesn’t serve you. There is always another door to open.

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?

Remember that life comes in chapters. There are no hard and fast rules about when you start something new or when you decide to change directions. Often, we attach far too much self-importance and self-worth to a title or an idea of who we want to be. And then we feel hesitant or ashamed if we want to make a change to that image. But the best parts of life are lived in the fluidity of the moment. Not to say don’t give your all to what is at hand, but rather be self-reflective and self-aware enough to know when a change is warranted and make it. Don’t waste time spinning your wheels in places or on jobs that do not serve you.

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?

Empowering women is at the core of my passions. Not only are we subject to many repressive external forces in society and the workplace, but we often have allowed those messages to permeate into our psyches and use them as excuses to have self-doubt and imposter syndrome. I want all humans, but especially those who feel the most vulnerable, to be confident, proud versions of their authentic self. The world would be better for it.

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 have three really exciting things taking off right now. First, I recently launched my own publishing house called Inked Elephant. In addition to bringing a more encouraging outlet to authors looking to publish their work, Inked Elephant Publishing House, is a social enterprise. I have a personal mission to use the tools at my disposal to make an impact and in this case that is writing and publishing. So for every paid client we have, we also tell pro bono stories of others doing good in the community and the proceeds go back to those causes. We have a goal to tell 10,000 stories by 2025.

Second, my memoir Incongruent; Travel, Trauma, Transformation is in the final editing stages and set to be released in Spring of 2023. I am thrilled to share this very personal story of global travel as my own healing method.

Finally, my consulting firm InPursuit has developed three new workshop series for businesses of all sizes honing in on the new normal in the modern workplace. From Human-Centered Leadership to Understanding the Multi-Generational Workplace, these workshops are highly interactive, full of the latest research and trends and FUN!

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

“We hold the keys to the cages we build around ourselves.” — Me

This phrase was uttered casually, without contemplation, when I was put on the spot for a signature piece of advice. It was a chilly hotel ballroom at a speakers’ conference in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. While I did not know it at the time, this phrase would come to serve as my personal mantra, helping me leave a toxic job, relaunch my company, begin speaking on stages again, and fulfill my passion of writing. When I remind myself that I already have the tools to overcome any obstacle or reach any goal, I can stay calm and keep pushing forward.

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.

Be all In. If there is one thing I know for sure about being on stage, it is this. You must be all in. An audience can intangibly feel when you are holding back. When you are not giving them the full version of yourself or your message. I learned this very early in my childhood. I was fortunate to be cast in key roles for most of the productions I auditioned for. Until one day, I was not. I was given a very small part and young ego being what it was, I contemplated quitting. But then I had an instinctual thought, what if I play this small role so well that it is all the audience can talk about. And that is exactly what happened. Every night for weeks, I was the boldest version of that character possible, and the reviews noticed.

Say Yes And… The first rule of improv is to always say yes, and. Never say no. When an actor says no, they shut down the energy and the scene dies. This same concept can be applied to speaking on stages as well. It’s an attitude and a belief that you have the power to overcome any challenge that happens to you on stage. If you forget your words, just say “yes, and” and dig into your expertise to find a new way to connect you back to your words.

Practice but not too much. Practice is a key element to giving a quality presentation. But so is spontaneity and connection. If we practice to a point where we become robotic in our delivery, we will lose the energy and the connection with the audience will be lost.

Tune into your intuition. Speaking of audience, remember they are who you are there for. Their needs and what they WANT to hear should be your focus, not what you want to say. Use your audience research in advance and mingle that with your intuition when you reach the room. Do they need a laugh to lighten the tension? Do they need you to pull pack the curtain and show vulnerability? Get an authentic feel for what the audience is really needing in that moment and give it to them.

Be yourself! Trust me when I say, people can smell a lie from a mile away so just be yourself. I am a full body presenter. I use my arms and hands, I walk back and forth across the stage, I vary my voice, volume, and tone. That is who I am off the stage so it has to be who I am on the stage. I can make small tweaks based on space or microphones but in the end, I strive to always be my authentic self when I am on stage.

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

Outside of the tips above, I would say the most important thing to remember is never let the 1 overpower the 100. In speaking, as in life, we are never going to please everyone. We must keep perspective. It is our natural inclination to focus on the one bored person in the audience playing on their phone. But we can train ourselves to overlook that person and focus on the other 100 in the room. They are with you. They are loving you. Don’t let the 100 down because you are distracted by the one.

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 tell people to go out and get dirty. Lots of people talk about impact, but few actually make the time in their lives to get out and do it. Throughout my life, I have followed a guiding principle of outcomes driven, impact focused. Roughly translating to work hard and give back. To that end, I have participated in more than 50 service projects in 20 cities and 3 international locations, not including the thousands of miles I have run or cycled in charity races.

From building houses in Nicaragua to building handicap ramps in Florida; from working on urban farms in Baltimore to working in an Ashram in India, there was no location too far or job too dirty to turn me away if I had the opportunity to help.

And along the way I have worked to be available to mentor others. I have helped mentor more than a dozen successful social enterprise businesses, and dozens of students, writers and speakers. And as much as I hope I have helped others, the truth is, these experiences have enriched my life more than I can express. They have made me the woman I am today.

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!

As a fellow author, traveler, childless woman, and survivor of trauma, I have always wanted to meet Elizabeth Gilbert. If you are reading this Elizabeth, I will meet you anywhere in the world and lunch is on me!

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

You can find all my social media, as well as, the InPursuit and Inked Elephant websites at my Linktree https://linktr.ee/MelanieSueHicks

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

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Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market