How public speaking can boost your influence as a leader
Here's our master class on how to take your public speaking skills to the next level.
Like many superintendents, Dr. Robert Hunt’s introduction to the vast majority of his district’s staff members was a convocation speech. While he’s no stranger to giving presentations and speeches, that doesn’t mean Hunt doesn’t dread them. “It was nerve-wracking because public speaking has never been something I really love, and I needed to both introduce myself and set the tone for the school year,” he explains.
Hunt’s experience is likely familiar to many school leaders. Public speaking, from speeches to presentations, is part and parcel of being an educator. But just because something is part of the job doesn’t mean every school leader is automatically good at it. While some people may have a natural knack for oration, public speaking is a craft that must be honed like any other.
Most of us have gone through an oral communications or public speaking class at some point. Maybe we learned how to make note cards for long speeches or pulled a topic out of a hat for the dreaded timed extemporaneous speech. And if you’re a superintendent or other school leader, you probably use these skills a lot, no matter how long ago you first learned them.
But what they teach in high school or even college is just the basics. It’s like dipping a toe in the water—while professional orators swim leagues through choppy seas. While being an educator comes with its fair share of public speaking, there’s a big difference between a classroom of middle schoolers and an auditorium full of frustrated parents. The good news is that there’s a surprisingly robust body of research about how to turn a dull presentation into a speech worth remembering.
No one expects you to master everything the role of a superintendent entails on your first—or even thousandth—day on the job. But strengthening your oratory skills is a must when it comes to moving the needle on the things that matter. By becoming a stronger speaker, you’ll be better able to communicate your agenda and influence your audience. Here are a few advanced tips to incorporate into your own craft.
Establishing Common Ground
As the superintendent, you are often the voice of your district. After all, you’re the one who most often gives statements to the press and speaks during district events. That means you don’t have to spend unnecessary time establishing your credibility, right? Surprisingly, this isn’t always the case.
Despite the important work that happens at the upper levels of leadership, some of your employees likely feel pretty distant from you and your work. If you’re in a smaller district, you may interact with most of your teachers on a regular basis, but if you’re in a larger district, you may not have even met some of them. The same goes for your students, families, and community members. So when you need to get a message across, what do you do? Establish your credibility by building common ground.
You might be thinking: I’ve been working for my district for five years—why do I have to establish my credibility? And partially, you’re right. Every speaker takes the stage with their reputation in tow, and in a school leader’s case, that’s hopefully a good thing. But a speech is also like a stand-alone production. If you’re speaking to a large crowd of disparate stakeholders, your audience will probably come to your speech with varying levels of understanding—both of the topic at hand and of who you are as a leader. This means they’ll also have varying levels of trust in you.
You don’t need to start every speech with a rundown of your CV’s high points, but you should be able to explain why you are uniquely qualified to speak about this particular topic. Are you able to offer an authoritative view on the subject that no one else can? Do you want to help your audience understand that you empathize with their points of view? All of these are ways to establish your credibility from the outset.
In practice, you might open a speech about a new school safety policy with something like this: “As a superintendent, an educator, and most essentially, as a parent, I know there is nothing more important than keeping our children safe.” While your primary role in this situation is that of an administrator, and the details of your speech are about policies for school visitors, you have quickly established yourself as a parent as well. You’re proving that you have a shared, vested interest with your audience and, most importantly, that you care. By pointing this out, you are establishing your why.
Building common ground within the limited microcosm of a speech shows your audience you’re worth listening to—even if they already have an opinion about your topic. It’s also about trust.
According to a 2022 study by the Trust Edge Leadership Institute, 80% of Americans would not follow a leader they did not trust. A similar number of people would not buy goods and services from someone they didn’t trust. Writing for Harvard Business Review, communications expert Allison Shapira discusses the value of trust in communication. “As speakers, our first goal is to build trust: in our credibility, our belief in what we do, or our ability to deliver value,” Shapira explains. “Only then can we mobilize our audience to take action around a shared vision.”
Look again at how the example above establishes trust. You will notice broader statements of credibility. It references your perspective as a parent and refers to the students of your district as “our children,” which humanizes them and you. From the get-go, your audience knows that you have the same goals they do: to keep children safe at school. And that makes you worth their trust.
As you write your own speeches, think of the following questions and consider how you’re answering them throughout your presentation:
- Why should you trust me to do a good job with this?
- How do you know that I really care about this?
- How can I show you that regardless of the challenges, I will work hard on this?
If you answer these questions and demonstrate your ability to be trusted with whatever issue is at hand, your connection with your audience will blossom.
Honing Your Core Message
A common mistake that many novice public speakers make is trying to cover too much content at once and having none of it stick. In fact, this is a struggle you’re likely already familiar with from your time in the classroom. Any lesson that tries to pack too much into a single class period is bound to fail. But why?
Part of it has to do with attention span, but another part of it is just how people expect to communicate. Regardless of what your topic is, your audience will be parsing your speech in search of your single core message—that small, important nugget of information to take away.
One way to make sure your core message shines through in your speech is to establish one in the first place. By the end of your speech, your audience should be able to explain your point in one to two sentences—and if you can’t do this yourself, your audience won’t be able to, either. This is especially important if your speech includes a call to action. After all, if your audience doesn’t walk away knowing what you want them to do, they probably won’t do it.
To make sure your core message isn’t lost in your overall presentation, keep your speech as thematically unified as possible. While you don’t want to be too repetitive, repetition can help your audience understand—and remember—your core message.
Former President Barack Obama will likely be remembered as one of our century’s best orators. His speeches are so powerful and memorable in part because he encapsulates his message into short, succinct statements. Even after a decade, some of these soundbites (for lack of a better term) may spark your memory; for example, “We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America.” This example also uses the rule of three: the idea that people remember things better when they’re strung together in groups of three.
Think about the best speech you’ve ever heard. Maybe it was one given by a colleague, one you studied in school, or one given by a public figure, such as a State of the Union Address. Whoever delivered this speech likely did one thing very, very well: They honed their core message.
Great public speakers spend a lot of time listening to other speeches, both historical and contemporary, heavy and lighthearted. Next time you sit down to watch the Oscars, listen closely to the acceptance speeches. Some celebrities have speechwriters, and when you realize how carefully they build to a singular core message, you’ll start seeing it everywhere you look.
Pacing and Leading
In Everything’s An Argument, a seminal rhetoric textbook, authors Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz make the case that all forms of communication—from speeches to advertisements to long-form articles—set out with the intention to persuade. They argue that as we navigate the world, we are enmired in arguments attempting to sway us this way or that. And it’s true; while you may not view every small speech you deliver through the lens of persuasion, you are, in fact, trying to lead your audience toward a certain belief or perspective.
As a district leader, most of your speeches are, at least in part, an attempt to move your stakeholders to action. This is where “pacing and leading” comes in. While this technique has different iterations across disciplines, the core principle is to convince your audience to take a future action by logically connecting it to actions they’re already taking.
You can do this by using a “pace, pace, lead” structure. Let’s say that you want your building leaders to begin taking the next step with your district’s PBIS program. You know that some of them may be resistant to this next step, as it requires midyear buy-in that can be hard to garner. To use pace, pace, lead, you would start by stating two steps—the “paces”—that you’re currently taking or have already taken. Then, you would state the desired next step—the action you hope to “lead” them toward. This draws a logical connection between all three steps or ideas even if there isn’t one.
It might look something like this: “We have increased positive phone calls home. We have made targeted changes to our transitions. Now we must work with our student ambassadors to build culture norms that all our students will buy into.” The first two steps aren’t new and have likely already proven their value. The third step could be easy to resist if presented alone, but as part of a series, it feels like the next logical action to take, rather than just more work.
There’s also a different version of pacing and leading called “future pacing.” With this technique, you’re focusing on an imagined future that is mutually desirable by everyone in the audience, even if it’s as yet out of reach. This technique was most famously used in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
You can see here how King is building a vision that is very different from the realities of the day, and yet so plausible that it’s worth whatever is necessary to reach it. You’ll also notice, even in this short excerpt, King’s use of repetition. In fact, he used the phrase “I have a dream” 11 times in the final four minutes of his speech.
While your own future pacing will likely not be as memorable as Dr. King’s, it can help your audience lean into whatever future you’re envisioning. You may be explaining your vision for what new team-taught classes will look like two years from now or how a major bond campaign will impact your district in a decade.
Future pacing is all about building a shared vision. If you’re speaking about a long-term school improvement plan, you want to make your vision clear to your audience—so clear that it feels like a future everyone can be proud to work toward.
It’s amazing how much speeches are expected to do. Often, speeches need to accomplish multiple tightly braided goals: building trust, communicating an initiative, and giving a call to action. So it makes sense to try to get as much right as possible. Using the rhetorical techniques we’ve discussed here is a way of working smarter—getting more people on board with your vision so that everyone can work together.
While this all may seem daunting, don’t lose heart. If giving speeches is like swimming, you’ve been doing laps around the pool for years; now you’re ready to go from a simple breaststroke to a powerful butterfly.
Being a good orator doesn’t necessarily make you a better leader in the day-to-day of your job, but it will make it easier for you to rally your team (or your entire district) together around a major idea or initiative. Building your speech-giving prowess is worth the effort and will help you lead your district through whatever choppy waters lie ahead.
Originally published as "The Language of Leadership" in the Spring 2023 issue of SchoolCEO.
Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!